My Bodybuilding to Fitness Journey

“Every man wants to be bigger than dad…”

From the Pumping Iron song – Written by Michael Small and performed by Joey Ward

In some ways this is an easy entry for me to write, in other ways it’s difficult. I started out thinking that I would write a blog about my journey to a 350 pound (160 kg) bench press and how you could achieve one, too (short answer: go to http://www.timinvermont.com/fitness/benchpgm.htm and follow the program there. It may take a few rounds, but you’ll gain a lot of strength and a lot of size each time). But, I got to looking at old records and started to reflect on my progress over the years. This reminiscing led me to a basic question about myself: am I now or was I ever an actual bodybuilder?

Let’s review the evidence…

First Impressions

If you looked at me today or at any point in my life your answer to the question “is Dave a bodybuilder” would be a pretty emphatic “no.” Sure, I have some size and statistically speaking there are very few men my age who can lift as much as I can in the weight room (see my blog How Much Can the Average Man Bench Press for details and to find out how you compare). But I’m clearly much too fat to be a bodybuilder in the popular sense, my waist and hips are too wide, etc., etc. At best you might think I’ve done some power lifting in my past. But I’m no Arnold. Heck, I’m not even a Richard Simmons. But in the broader sense of the term? Maybe…

The Early Years

Skinny me!
Not so skinny me.

If you look into my past it’s clear that exercise and weightlifting in particular have been part of my life for a long time. I actually started lifting in high school using my dad’s 110 pound plastic barbell set purchased at Montgomery Wards (we called it “monkey” Wards back in the day – what a laugh that was…eh, I guess you had to be alive then). Believe it or not at that time my school did not have a proper weight room. There was a Universal Gym that lived in a store room just off the gym by the custodial office but frankly, even though I was on the on the track team, I was too intimidated the “jocks” to actually use it myself.

Despite my self image of being fat (probably a blog post in and of itself) I was a skinny teen and not even remotely considered a jock – though I did finally letter in track my junior year. The earliest records I have indicated that I had average sized 13 inch (33 cm) arms in my twenties and benched about 90 pounds (40 kg) for reps during a typical workout. My 39 inch (99 cm) was barely larger than my 37 inch (94 cm) waist.

Not surprisingly, my goal back in my teens and twenties was simple: get bigger.

And not just a little bigger, I wanted to be huge with 22 inch (56 cm) arms and to be barely able to fit into a XXXL shirt. I wanted to look like the guys on the magazine covers – Arnold, Big Lou Ferrigno, Dave Draper, and a host of others. This quest for size, by the way, had nothing to do with attracting girls. I think it was for what may be a more common reason – I didn’t want to be small or perceived as weak. I also wanted to be satisfied with what I saw in the mirror. Narcissism isn’t just for politicians.

Reality vs Expectations

The picture is small and grainy – early digital photography – but I like the look of that tricep!

So in my younger years I had bought fairly heavily into the myth that anyone could achieve a Mr. Olympia physique. The myth that the secret to size and strength was to take the right supplement, do the specific workout that Mr. Current Trophy Winner did, curl the weight with you pinky pointing up, and so on and so forth. Do these things and the muscle would come. In my naivety I didn’t realize that to achieve a champion bodybuilder’s physique took a lot more dedication than I had, to the point of making it your life, extraordinary genetics, and chemical assistance well beyond a second scoop of creatine before your workout.

So, predictably, I wasn’t very successful in those early years. At least in terms of my progress matching my expectations. However, even without having someone to guide me in the gym and to follow me around slapping pizza out of my hands, I did start to make progress. My trial and error method of training, my research skills, and overall desire to make a change did serve me better than I thought. I had the tools to at least get closer to my goal – but I kept getting in my own way so to speak. There was also, of course, my health issues. Primarily Crohn’s Disease.

Adversity, Attitude, and the Middle Years

Big, but needed more definition.

As I mentioned earlier I had issues maintaining a consistent workout. Some were due to allowing conflicts to get in the way of my training (I’m looking at you theatre), but others were of a more serious health nature. The first being Crohn’s which is often a debilitating inflammatory bowel disease. People who are afflicted with Crohn’s can suffer from severe pain, nutritional deficiencies, and more than 75% of us end up with surgery (I’m one of the 75% in fact).

Because of Crohn’s I lost all the meager gains I had made in my early twenties during a serious and long term episode. I went from 180 pounds (82 kg) down to about 130 pounds (59 kg). I didn’t mind the sub-thirty inch (76 cm) waist. But it came with 10 inch (25 cm) arms – flexed – and no abs. To be fair, I never had abs. Even as a skinny teen I didn’t have them. They just hadn’t been invented yet.

During those two years or so before my Crohn’s came under some level of control I had trouble just getting through the day and maintaining a job let alone work out. I was having trouble eating enough food to stay alive let alone gain mass.

But, the day finally came that my appetite returned and so did my efforts in the gym. I have to admit that I actually hit my bodybuilding stride in my thirties and forties. In fact it was in my forties that I started getting compliments and comments about the size of my arms. Fun fact, today my forearm is actually bigger than my upper arm was when I first started lifting (it pays to keep records folks).

It was also in my mid forties that my strength reached it’s peak – unfortunately, so did my weight but that’s another story. It took a few decades but my 60 pound (27 kg) bench press soared to 350 pounds (not quite 160 kg) one time max rep. I stress “one time.” Only once, I never tried again, but I still claim it.

Today – A New Attitude?

Before and after my ileostomy reversal.

In the past 3 or 4 years began what I called my period of rapid decline. Not because I was having less successful workouts. But because suddenly multiple health crises started popping up.

First came the Deep Vein Thrombosis (blood clot in my leg). This was followed by the news a few months later that at some point earlier in the year I had suffered a heart attack which permanently decreased the function of my heart. Then Crohn’s decided to have another swat at my which led to a perforated bowel and an ileostomy bag for a long 6 months or so. During which time I contracted Norovirus which put me into kidney failure (see Wash Your Hands People for details).

But even after all the above, I still returned to lifting. The desire to want to be bigger and stronger has not abated over the years, but I have added a new dimension to my training.

A long time ago a personal trainer, who was a competitive bodybuilder, told me that you should never mistake bodybuilding for fitness. Bodybuilding, in the competitive world at least, is all about looks. In fact, many of the practices that professional and amateur competitors do to prepare for a contest can be harmful if not dangerous to the body. Water depletion, calorie restriction, and this is before any discussion of drugs is considered.

In my younger days, if I had the dedication and drive to be competitive, I might have followed that same unhealthy path in the quest to get big, look better and to win trophies. But today, now that the realization of how precious and rare good health actually is has become evident to me, I have changed my training. Sure, I still lift and want to have muscle to flex, but I now also work on cardio and fat loss. It may be too little, too late, but here we are.

Advice to Youth or Lessons Learned

The take-aways of my journey are simple. If you want to be a competitive bodybuilder that’s your choice and there’s nothing wrong with it. But understand that it is a lifestyle and one that will take you away from other things in life. Leisure time, outside activities, and possibly relationships. I may be over stating this as there are happy pro-bodybuilders. But they sacrificed along the way.

Here’s a few more tidbits of things I’ve learned over time:

  • To thine own self be true. When I first started training bodybuilding was an oddity. In fact, coaches were still actively discouraging weight training because they worried that their athletes would become “muscle-bound.” So to large degree the idea of lifting to get bigger and stronger was frowned upon. Today there is no such stigma and it’s almost expected that everyone will lift weights at some point. Just be sure that you understand your motivations for doing so. Is it to get stronger? Look better? Get bigger? Staying focused on your goal will guide your training.
  • Remember – you are doing this for you. No one else. Your goals are your goals and you don’t have to justify the why’s of them to anyone but your self. Keep that in mind when you are asked why you work out so much, watch your diet so closely, etc.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Likewise, don’t think that you know it all. There’s a world of information on bodybuilding out there. Arnold’s Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding is still essential reading, too. I actually shared a hose one summer with a grad student who was clearly an experienced lifter and we never once talked about training. A missed opportunity for sure and I’m betting one of many.
  • Nutrition is key. Trust me on this, you can’t supplement your way past a bad diet. Speaking of supplements, you probably need fewer than you think (I know I’ll get some flack on this point). Some extra protein when you can’t get all your meals in, maybe some creatine but that’s about it. Especially when you are just starting out. In any case, get your diet straight first. Then you can experiment with supplements – but I bet you’ll find that you can get very far without them.
  • Your heart is your most important muscle. I know that it’s hard to think about heart health and keeping your body fat low when you are in your teens and twenties and your metabolism is firing at full speed. No one asks about your blood oxygen levels at the beach after all. But believe me, one day without warning your metabolism will suddenly slow down and instead of being that skinny guy with a natural six-pack you’ll be that fat guy with a full keg! You’ll have trouble walking up stairs, and a couple of squats will really make you sweat. You can avoid almost all of this with a little walking and running each day. Cardio – it’s not just for heart patients. It helps keep you from becoming one, too.
  • Be kind. Some day down the road when a gym newbie asks you for a spot or advice, give it. Remember where you started. Also, humor that old guy in the gym who tells you that he used to lift 350 pounds. If you keep working out and stay healthy someday that old guy will be you.
Posing in the “playroom”

There is no point of regretting the past, but I do wish that I was more focused on my training early on. However, I am happy with where my current training is taking me. Even with my prime training years behind me (I have to admit it) I still make gains. Granted, my challenges are different now. I don’t try to lift all the weights. I now have goals that involve running longer distances – or any distance – and I find I’ve become more of a cheerleader for others as they begin their own bodybuilding or fitness journeys. Which isn’t a bad thing at all. Done right, bodybuilding and weight lifting can be a life long activity.

So, Are You a Bodybuilder or Nah, Brah*?

Oh, that’s right I forgot we started with that question. I have to admit that even today, when I’ve had to begrudgingly modify my training style to focus more on cardio and cut back on the heavy weights, that I still have that old mindset of bigger and stronger is better. My training partner can confirm that I spend a little too much time flexing in the mirror and trying to find just the right light to make by biceps “pop” when I flex. I enjoy the feel of the weight as I push and pull it. I look forward to the “pump” as the workout progresses and the endorphins kick in and that feeling when even though you’re tired it feels like you could lift a Mack Truck off your chest and conquer the world. I like seeing new veins emerge and when muscle definition starts to show through the layer of fat (diet ladies and gentlemen). I enjoy trying out new exercises and figuring out what works for me and what doesn’t.

So yeah, I may not be good at it and you’ll never see me on stage in a pair of posing briefs with way too much self-tanner covering every inch of my body, but I think it’s time to admit that I am a bodybuilder. Proud of it, too.

Are you one? Leave your thoughts in the comments and let’s discuss!

All photos by David P. Wahr unless otherwise noted.
Photos and words @copyright David P. Wahr

*P.S. – I promise never to use “brah” in a header again.

Fitness Quest: July 2021 Update

Since we are now about half-way through the year and I haven’t done a proper fitness update in a while here you go!

Internal Health

The big news is that my Crohn’s disease continues to be under control. The bigger news is that my heart is working better, too. There was a concern in March that my heart function had decreased somewhat so my cardiologist put me on Entresto (you’ve seen the ads if you live in the United States) and it appears to be working. My ejection fraction has gone from 35% to 43% in the first three months. Since I tolerate the drug and am responding to it we are now talking about increasing the dosage a little to see if we can do a little better. From what I understand a normal ejection fraction is somewhere between 70 and 50%. So I’m almost back to the “normal” range. An unexpected side effect is that I could tell it was working because I didn’t have so many dark thoughts about death and dying as I’ve been having since this whole thing began. I’m thinking about the future again. The mind and the body are linked. If your body works better, your mind responds accordingly. At least that seems to hold true in my case.

External Health

I’m still staying active as possible and, according to my trainer at least, I’m doing things that men 20 years younger than me can’t do. Such as bench press more than my bodyweight. My weight is down since the beginning of the year and I see veins where I haven’t seen veins before (if you don’t know why this is cool, talk to your nearest gym rat). I’ve given up on ever having six pack abs for the simple reason that two abdominal surgeries have kind of mooshed things around. I’m still working on losing the layers of fat on my mid-section but between the scars and other issues I don’t know what I’ll find when that happens. Still a long way to go but my bodyfat is moving downwards with my weight.

Current Workout and Activities

Cardio will be a bit of a challenge as usual. My tap dancing is paused for the summer (we’ll start up again in September) and I need to get back to putting in my steps each day. I’ve been falling short of my 10,000 for quite a while now.

Like men 30 years my junior I’m still obsessed with arm size. So I’m in a little competition with another friend who lifts to see who can gain the most size on his arms in six weeks. In addition to this I am working chest twice per week and am currently going with a high repetition/low weight scheme on bench press. I’m working up to 100 reps over 4 sets at 135 lbs. (61kg) with my brother-in-law. I’m about 10 shy of the goal right now. Not sure what we’ll do next. Maybe back to 225 lbs (102kg) to see how we fare at that weight. I also workout with my trainer once per week.

I’ll be running – and I use the term loosely – in the annual Rose Run on July 10th which is a fund raiser for cancer research. I’m also doing a 25 push up per day challenge for the American Cancer Society. So it’s a busy month!

Summary

If I can keep up this pace I expect to end the year in a much healthier place than I began it. And with a more positive mindset, too. I don’t expect to win any marathons or bodybuilding competitions, but I sure as heck expect to be wearing smaller pants and lifting more weight! I might even be a better tap dancer too. A long shot I know.

I hope that you are all doing well in overcoming your fitness challenges and reaching your goals, too! Let me know about them in the comment section below.

Featured image by Photo by Victor Freitas from Pexels

All photos by David P. Wahr unless otherwise noted.
Photos and words @copyright David P. Wahr

How Do You Know if You Have Big Arms?

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

There is a saying in most gyms that, for men at least, “the day you first pick up a weight is the day you become forever small.”

Like many sayings there seems to be some truth in it. In fact, I will go out on a limb and say that every man who starts to lift weights is doing it because at some level he wants bigger muscles. Oh sure, he might start with the idea of getting stronger for sports or maybe it’s because he is getting picked on for being too skinny (or too fat) or because he thinks it will help him get noticed by girls or any of a dozen more reasons. But, at the basic motivation level, he wants to be able to roll up his shirt sleeve and have something to flex. Or better yet, something to flex that will stretch his shirt sleeves without rolling them up.

This isn’t an issue just for American men. If my most popular blog post – When is a Man’s Arm Considered Big? – is any indication this is a concern for men all over the world. I’ve had hits from every continent (except Antarctica) and most every country. Some even from real people!

Go to social media or your favorite search engine and you’ll find that building bigger arms is a popular subject for literally thousands of Instagrammers, YouTubers, Facebookers, and I suspect Tik Tokkers too. Even men with extraordinarily big arms will talk about how they want to add just a little more “size to the bis” with the usual goal being a muscular 20 inches (or a little over 50 cm). Which, frankly, is unrealistic for most men and difficult to achieve even with vitamin-S (steroids).

Me as a “fat” teen. Photo from my high school yearbook.

“But wait,” you say, “don’t guys who are jacked know that they are jacked?” No, they don’t always know. Obviously a few do and they are eager to capitalize on this (again go to social media – you’ll find plenty of them willing to sell you a training program). But for most of us “average Joes” it’s a constant battle to gain a little more size and shape. Because no matter how developed we become there’s always the same skinny/fat guy looking back at us in the mirror.

Many people joke that bodybuilders and weightlifters – but never crossfitters for some reason (zing!) – suffer from body dysmorphia. I’m not going to go that far as true dysmorphia is a serious mental health disorder that can lead to significant issues. But I do think that as a group the bodybuilding community may suffer from what I’ll call a physical “misperception.” It’s no secret that in a way we are all two different people. We are the person who the world sees and also the person who we see inside our head. Moreover this inner perception of ourselves is often formed when we are young and difficult to change. If you were skinny as a kid, your self-image is one of a skinny kid. I myself always thought I was fat as a kid but pictures from my youth clearly indicate that this was never the case!

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

From my own personal experience regardless of how big or small my arms have been over the years – from stick thin (thanks to my Crohn’s disease) to flat and fat (thanks poor diet) – in the mirror I always see the same somewhat shapeless, flabby arm. Even when presented with external evidence to the contrary.

For example, here are a few comments I have gotten about my arms over the years:

  • “Wow, you have big triceps,” from an EMT helping to remove my sweatshirt in the Emergency Room (long story told here).
  • “You have big triceps,” a friend making casual conversation at a party after asking if I had been working out.
  • “You must workout,” from a phlebotomist about to take my blood.
  • “Don’t go breaking my blood pressure cuff with those muscles,” a medical technician during a pre-exam. Yes, in case you noticed, many of the comments I get about my arm development come from medical professionals.
  • “At some point your arms just kind of blew up like…(making a motion that indicates the size of a basketball),” a friend who was commenting on my weight room progress.
  • “You think your arms are small because you can’t see your triceps,” from a training partner.
  • “Looks like someone brought the big guns out tonight,” a crew member taking my ticket while I was boarding a boat for a dinner cruise (I was wearing a short sleeve shirt with admittedly tight sleeves).
  • “Oh come on, make a muscle,” a female friend at a party. I put this one here because all the other above comments were from men – so much about bigger muscles attracting women (sorry guys).

Interestingly enough, I got many of these comments when my arms were not at their biggest. Why? Because a fat arm doesn’t necessarily look big. Especially if it matches the rest of the body. Without definition and a visible “peak” to the bicep or “horseshoe” to the tricep the assumption is that there is no muscle underneath. A man with 18″ (46 cm) arms, which are big in anyone’s books, at 35% bodyfat may therefore look smaller than the man with a 16″ (41 cm) arms at 15% bodyfat. In this case size does not actually matter. The perception of size does.

So, if a big arm can look small and a small arm can look big – how do you know if you have big arms?

Simple, other people will tell you.

Now, go hit the gym. It’s arm day!

P.S. – do you want to know how your arms stack up to the average guy or your fellow gym goers? Find out here and here! Want to build bigger arms? Here are couple tips.

Photo by Cesar Galeu00e3o on Pexels.com

All photos by David P. Wahr unless otherwise noted.
Photos and words @copyright David P. Wahr

The Secret to Building Big Arms Which No One Else is Willing to Share Is…

If there’s one thing that I think we can be sure of is that most guys who start lifting are interested in building big arms. In fact, based on ads and “click bait” on social media you might presume that most lifters are obsessed with arm size (I’m one of them).

Add an inch to your arms in 24 hours! The secret to bigger biceps! This routine is guaranteed to add inches to your arms! The pitches go on and on and with good reason and have been going on for as long as I’ve been aware. It can be argued that Joe Weider built an entire industry with ads for bigger biceps in the back of comic books.

Heck, the number one most viewed blog post I’ve written is When Is a Man’s Arm Considered Big? (followed closely by How Much Can the Average Man Bench? But we’ll investigate that another time).

So in my mind there is no doubt that men in particular want to have pumped up “guns.” They want to be asked to “make a muscle” for the admiring kids or be asked the ever popular “let me feel your arm” by an attractive young lady when hanging out and are just waiting for that subtle brush of their arm and the soft cooing from a potential romantic encounter.

Even though, more often than not, the comments come from fellow gym rats. However, “brah, how’d you build them pipes?” and “nice veins dude” comments are not unwelcome (just don’t interrupt during the set please).

Chances are if you’ve read this far you are one of the many men in search of the perfect exercise to build peaks high enough to get snow on them and triceps so full and well defined you can shoe a horse with them.

So what’s the secret? What’s the one thing I can do today to have bigger arms tomorrow?

To find out, I decided to take a completely unscientific survey of men I know who happen to have what I consider to be great arms. This group included gymnasts, rugby players, recreational lifters, and competitive bodybuilders. I asked a simple question: what is your favorite arm exercise and why?

And do you know what I found that these men all said was their favorite exercise? The one thing they did to build their enviable arms?

NO, JUST TELL ME ALREADY!

In no particular order the secret move they did was:

  • Barbell Curls
  • Hammer Curls
  • Spider Curls
  • Bent over DB Curls
  • Every other kind of curl
  • Tricep Extensions
  • Tricep Push-Downs
  • Pullups
  • Chinups
  • Every other kind of up
  • And on, and on, and on (okay, not that far on. I don’t know that many guys with jacked arms).

Many of the responders had very logical reasons why their move was a favorite. For example: Olympic gymnast, and all round nice guy, Jake Dalton said, “my favorite arm exercise is bent over db curls with drop sets. I like it because it is a difficult challenge and it also creates a lot of blood flow and it is also very specific to that muscle. It’s specifically bicep and that’s what I like about it.”

Jake Dalton

A friend and colleague of mine, Bodie Bankey (on Instagram @bbankey58 ), who is a competitive bodybuilder (and huge and also an all round nice guy) has a very specific routine that covers all the muscle angles because he has found that his arms seem to respond best to very controlled form and a mix of rep ranges.

Bodie Bankey in competition shape

So you can’t argue with the results these guys have gotten despite having different favorite exercises.

if there is noT one move OR ROUTINE to get big arms, How do I get my twigs to grow into logs?

There are only three real things all the guys I surveyed had in common: 1) a commitment to working out; 2) consistency in their work outs; and last but not least, 3) patience. In my opinion, all three of these things are of equal importance. Commitment to working out should be obvious. But what isn’t obvious is that the type of workout may not be critical between strict weight training and bodyweight exercises.

For instance Jake Dalton (did I mention that he is a former Olympian? Really, you should give him a follow on Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/user/jdflipkid/videos ) who has extremely well developed arms, even for a gymnast, didn’t specifically train his arms for size and strength. They are the product primarily of bodyweight exercises, done from a young age, and favorable genetics.

Bodie Bankey, like most bodybuilders, on the other hand trains specifically with weights for size and strength. Unlike Jake he didn’t start training for his sport specifically until late in his teens and though he clearly has a propensity for building muscle it took him years to attain his current size and strength. Read that again – years.

So to sum up, if you want big arms there are no shortcuts. You need to pick up a weight, curl and press it using good form, measure your results to figure out what works for you and what doesn’t, and have patience. Biceps, like Rome, aren’t built in a day or even a month. But give it a year or so and your arms will get bigger. So get ready for the comments and treat yourself to that new wardrobe.

So what’s your favorite arm exercise?

NOTE: results vary. Not everyone has the potential to grow 20 inch arms with freaky peaked biceps with or without chemical assistance. But that’s a subject for another blog entry (like this one).

Opinions in this blog are my own. I don’t have an editor and don’t know how to use commas. So if you find a mistake feel free to let me know. If you choose to follow any advice in this blog please be aware that I am not a medical professional or a professional health care/exercise science/therapist of any kind. Always consult a doctor before beginning a program of vigorous exercise.

Bodybuilding: Expectations vs Realities

This may come as a shock to some, but from the the moment a guy first picks up a weight, usually sometime in high school, he expects to get bodybuilder huge no matter how thin or heavy he might be. He might say that he is only working out for sports or to get “toned,” whatever that means, but my personal experience is otherwise. I’ve actually heard men say that they workout but that they don’t want to get too big – as if that was a possibility. I mean, most men will get bigger and stronger from lifting weights but getting “big” takes 1) genetics, which determine muscle shape, height, frame size, and a myriad of other physical characteristics – good and bad, 2) dedication and commitment to a routine, 3) proper nutrition (possibly the most important factor), 4) time, and if you really want to get “too big” most likely you’ll need 5) drugs (the illegal kind, not to be confused with supplements. By the way, I do not advocate the former and caution you to be careful with the latter). I could add another factor which is age. However, I believe that you can improve regardless of age. It might be harder to get going, you won’t recover quite as quickly and you may have to be more careful with your joints, but you can and will improve no matter how old or young you are.

Some of this expectation is natural, part of the male hubris if you will, but some of it is created from the sheer number of examples out there on social and traditional media. For example, I can remember a time when men could be in movies and television without having a six pack. And you don’t have to look far on social media to find all sorts of examples of guys (and gals) who are exceptionally well built. At least under the proper bathroom or locker room lighting.

Does this mean that you shouldn’t workout because you will never look the way you want too? Of course not. But most of us might want to consider setting goals that are more in line with our body types.

Take me for example. If you’ve read my previous blogs it should be no surprise that one of my goals from working out was always to build big, peaked biceps. However, the reality is that this will never happen for me. Regardless of how big (17.5 inches at one point) or small (about 11 inches) my arms are, my biceps always have a more rounded football like shape. In fact, until someone sees my triceps – my most commented on muscle – my arms don’t look that muscular.

Conversely, someone like my brother-in-law gets comments on the size of his arms – even when they are relatively small (for him at least) – because the shape of his bicep is more peaked and pronounced. Combine this with a genetic propensity to build his arms quickly – compared to most men – and you have someone who goes through sleeves with regularity. However, what he has in biceps he lacks in triceps. Sure they’re big, but not as pronounced as mine.

My unobtainable biceps goal as demonstrated by Peter K. Vaughn (find him on Instagram @peter.kv or @pkv.personaltraining).

Genetics determines muscle shape and the ability to build muscle. This doesn’t mean that someone with ordinary genetics can’t build a good looking body. But it’s going to take effort and commitment and frankly you may never look the way you want to look. Despite whatever artificial assistance Arnold had he was in reality a genetic freak (I don’t mean that in a mean way). Even at a young age he was better built than most adult men. His potential was enormous from the start.

My reality. Same size at Peter’s arm above, but due to a different shape and higher amount of body fat not nearly as impressive.

Regardless of genetics if you don’t put in the work and the nutrition, you won’t make outstanding progress as evidenced by this photo of my arm from 2017. A big arm, but soft. Below is a more recent picture of my arm after losing some weight. Shape is the same, but definition is better so the arm at a smaller size actually looks larger.

Me just before my recent surgery. My arm is smaller but better defined. Still no peak though due to the positioning of my muscle insertions and overall shape of the muscle belly.

So given that genetics will partly determine your ultimate results what can you expect if you put the work in? Frankly, quite a bit.

First off, regardless of how you end up looking you will feel better, move better and, barring an underlying medical condition of some kind, be healthier in general.

Even with an underlying health condition chances are you’ll do better with regular exercise than without (always check with your doctor before starting any program). For example, my friend Peter K. Vaughn like me suffers from Crohn’s. But despite multiple setbacks due to the disease he has the drive and stamina to keep making the best of what God gave him. Somewhat thin and lanky by nature he has overcome this to build a solid physique. The proof is in the picture below.

As you can see, he makes tremendous progress between setbacks. His biceps respond the fastest to training, but thanks to his consistency, commitment to proper nutrition, and the wonder of muscle memory, he bounces back quickly.

Even if you have great overall genetics to start with, it still takes time and effort to reach your full potential. Though progress can be noted in a few weeks, real change takes months and often years. For example Alexander Miles below.

Photo courtesy of Alexander Miles on Instagram @milesfitness. His website is
https://myfit-strategy.com/ .

Even as a teen you can see the potential in his physique based on his well defined delts and arms. However, he starts out pretty thin without much chest development or the classic V shape. Today however, you would not know that he was once a skinny teen. By working out regularly, and hard, staying focused on nutrition he’s been able to maximize his physique over a period of years.

Even guys with more average builds to start with can vastly improve their physiques and strength. For example, I used to work with a young man, Aymeric Van De Hove, pictured below, who went from a typical thin teen to a very well built man in less than five years. You can see some of his basic muscle shape in the 2010 photo, but no real hint of the physique that he would ultimately build over the next five years. With hard work and dedication he took what most experts might call an average physique and built something impressive and distinctly above average. Aymeric is also blessed with a very symmetrical physique. Note how his abs line up perfectly with each other. This is more rare than you might think and a product of genetics which cannot be changed regardless of how many crunches you do.

One last observation, “bro science” will tell you that tall men have a harder time putting on muscle than shorter men (think Basketball players versus gymnasts) but in my experience this isn’t necessarily true. I know some tall men who have an impressive amount of muscle on their frames and some skinny short guys. Some of the difference is just a matter of perspective. A 6 foot man with 16 inch arms will look smaller than a 5 foot 5 inch man with the same size arms. But, they actually have the same amount of muscle. And the taller man often has a larger frame and ultimately can put on more muscle than the shorter guy. In any case, both tall and shorter men can build a significant amount of muscle. In my opinion, you are more likely to be limited by the size and width of your frame.

Your height is no barrier to building muscle. Here’s Caleb Carr (@calebcarrfitness on Instagram) who is 5’5″ inches tall. Five years ago he was a lean runner with fairly wide shoulders, note the muscle definition in the before picgture. Already he was showing the potential for growth. Today he’s the same height and 75 pounds heavier (about 205). He’s clearly made the most of his great potential through heavy lifting and proper nutrition.
Likewise, tall men can build muscle too. Here’s me with Davy Barnes at the Arnold a few years ago. Davy, a recent contestant on the Titan Games (@davymichael on Instagram), stands 6’3″ and started working out when he was about 150 pounds. In this picture he weighed about 250 which is not his biggest. Currently, he carries 270 pounds on a relatively wide frame.

So to sum up, there are many factors that go into determining how far you can take your physique. I’ve only discussed a few here and most can be overcome for the most part. But the main takeaway is that regardless of the body nature gives you, you can build a better looking and healthier body. You need to put in the work, stay true to good nutrition, stay consistent in your workouts, and change your lifestyle to make meaningful change. The change will take time as there is no magic pill – but you can do it! Just don’t expect biceps like Arnold. Build the best body you can build, don’t be like me and keep comparing yourself to others or judging your progress by their progress.

We all have different metabolism’s and progress at our own rate. Keep striving to be the best you can be and you’ll be a happy camper indeed.

Onward!

Note: this blog is written from a male perspective because I’m a guy. Motivations and expectations are likely different for women. Just saying. Also, as always, no matter how motivated you feel after reading this blog – and I hope you feel at least a little motivated – always check with your favorite health care provider before starting a new exercise routine.

Fitness Quest: August 2015

Well, my quest for fitness is still ongoing – as I suppose it should be for the rest of my life when I think about it – and the good news is that I’m starting to notice some progress. I’ve entered into a pact of sorts with my sister and niece and we are all working on the Couch 2 5K program. Not doing it strictly by the book but I’m surprising myself each week that I’m going a little farther and faster each time. In addition I’m also walking during lunch at work and am up to 2 miles. The heat makes it a little difficult as I do get a little sweaty now so I’m taking a fresh shirt with me to use while walking so I don’t make the rest of the office suffer from my presence when I get back. Again, I’m seeing progress in my speed and distance.

Not seeing much progress on the weight loss though which is frustrating as according to MyFitnessPal I’m staying under my calorie goals each day, plus all the extra cardio. However, I’ve noticed that my “macros” are still off and I’m not getting enough protein and worse still I seem to be substituting the protein with fat. I’m going to have to do a better job on my meal prep I think, especially for dinner.

I’m also a little surprised at the number of fitness apps I’m using now: MyFitnessPal, MapMyRun, MapMyWalk, and my Jawbone UP2. Plus, I’ve put together a small group of like minded Facebook friends (which I really appreciate and enjoy), have a fitness board or two on Pinterest and still check out Bodybuilding.com on occasion. I think I have actually crossed the line from dabbling in fitness to starting to live a fitter lifestyle. Now if I could only get the biceps to grow again. I mean, a low heart rate is great and all, but you can’t flex your heart (or at least you shouldn’t)!

I wonder if it’s too late in life to have abs?

Onward!

P.S. the Humira seems to still be doing the trick for my Crohn’s. I’ve only had one significant flare up in the past couple months. It lasted for a while but was never to the point that I was incapacitated more than one morning.

Body Illusions

I’ve always had a problem, unrelated to my Crohn’s and other health related issues, in that I tend to measure my successes against other people. I suppose we all do this to some degree, but it can really be a problem/bother when working on physical changes. Not so much with weight loss, I don’t really get worried if someone else loses weight faster than I do (even when competing with them a la “Biggest Loser”). But with things less under my control. Like “why don’t my biceps look like that guy’s” or “why can’t I bench as much as him?” and other things like that.

For example: there’s this guy I know who from my earliest memories of meeting him gave me a big case of bicep envy. Of course, over time memory does embellish things, but back in college on the rare occasions I would see him flex I remember being struck by how high and peaked his biceps were – to the point that you could even see the split in the peak. His arms weren’t especially large at the time, about 16 inches or so, but to an even skinnier me they seemed huge. Over the years I worked on my biceps until eventually my arms were just as large as his were back then. But, to my surprise, my arms didn’t look like his at all. I knew that I had muscle as I had gained strength and my arms were hard to the touch, but instead of high “peaks” my biceps retained a flatter “football” shape. Back to the weight room…

Some time later we began to work out together. Doing a heavy bench routine that we both responded well to – though to be fair he responded much better to than I did. By this time however, though I was still envious of his gains (his arms swelled from about 16 inches to well over 18 inches in just a few months – mine from just under 16 to about 17) I was also truly happy for him and his gains (though he never really gave the impression of caring about gains in size the way I did/do). But I noticed something else. Once again, my arms never got the peak I so desired but the peak that he had in his youth was not nearly as evident either. When he flexed I could see that his biceps were still decidedly more peaked than mine, just not as much as before. What happened? Science tells us that you can’t change the shape of the muscle, so why weren’t his now much larger arms (and solid) more dramatic as they were before? That’s when it occurred to me. It’s an illusion.

What caused his arm growth wasn’t this time so much a change in his biceps but instead that his triceps grew to match. As a result, the biceps did not stand out as much because they were balanced by the larger muscle underneath. This is part of my issue as well since my triceps actually to a degree overshadowed my biceps (something my friend had to point out to me).

These body illusions occur in other ways, too. I know another young man who when you meet him you realize that he is fit. You know, wide shoulders and thin waist, the classic “V” shape. But he’s not very large so fully dressed you don’t think of him as being overly muscular. It wasn’t until he posted a “selfie” on Instagram one day (which apparently is a thing you are supposed to do nowadays) that I realized he was very muscular – complete with six pack – and looked huge. I know he’s not “huge” but a lack of body fat actually adds to the illusion of size when there isn’t anything else for a point of reference (like another person).

I once play Lenny in “Of Mice and Men” and if you’ve read the book you know that Lenny was a big hulking brute of a man. I’m not so much of a hulk. I was going to be aided in creating the stage illusion of size by wearing some thick books (I was already the tallest in the cast except for one guy), but I went to a personal trainer friend of mine and asked what do I do to add size quickly? He suggested just focusing on the back and shoulders as those muscles will give the greatest illusion of size.

Where am I going with all this? I’m not sure. The big lesson is don’t compare yourself to others. That way leads to disappointment especially when you don’t understand that some of what you admire or envy in another person is an illusion.  Instead compare yourself with yourself with your training and fitness goals as there are fewer illusions involved (except for the self-deception many of us have when looking in a mirror – but that’s another topic).

Also, I’ve been talking about physical illusions. There are other illusions too. For example: like many Crohn’s sufferers, I try to give the illusion that I’m not in some sort of pain or discomfort every day. I have a feeling that this is true of many other people with other conditions physical and mental. So maybe when approaching someone else we all should keep in mind that the person we see on the outside is just an illusion. We can’t know what’s going on inside – they may be in just as much pain as we are and perhaps should be treated as such.

Onward!

Reflections on a Visit With a Doctor

I recently started seeing a couple of new doctors (general and a gastro) and I just want to know one thing,when did they start letting teenagers practice medicine? Yeah, I’m officially getting old everyone looks like a kid to me these days…but despite his obvious youth I have to admit I liked both of them (her and him) and am willing to trust them with my overall health care. I especially liked that the first doctor wasn’t sure how to maintain my health with my disorder (Crohn’s) and sent me to someone else who knew more (the gastroenterologist).

Anyway, things went well, and there were no real surprises. Still some of the same old concerns (Crohn’s – which is being rechecked again, overweight, a touch of asthma and now a patch of eczema to add to the ever growing list). Then we started talking about my workout routine – or lack of it. Here’s where the doctor asked me a question that I don’t think a health care professional had ever asked me before: what exercise do you like to do?

Believe it or not, I don’t think I ever really thought about exercise in terms of liking it or not but mostly as a means to an end. Want bigger biceps? Lift. Want lower bodyfat? Run.

So what exercise do I like to do? I’m still thinking about it. On on hand I do like lifting – especially when I’m making progress. There’s a certain thrill from watching the weight on the bar go up, pushing myself against a previously immovable object and then moving it. You know what I’m talking about I’m sure. Plus, you know, the bulging biceps.

Running…eh. Never liked that. But I used to enjoy bicycling (unless it’s on an exercise bike). Then I kind of run out of exercise options. Sure there are the sports, but I don’t really like basketball and most everything else takes some sort of organized team (not too many guys playing games of pick-up rugby/soccer/hockey you name it in my neighborhood). Rowing/canoeing/kayaking I like but you need a river/lake…golf gets expensive…softball is seasonal.  I would like to swim more but don’t have good access to a pool.

I’m in a quandry. What else can I try? I do agree with my doctor when he said “if you don’t enjoy it, you won’t do it.”

So here’s my question for all of you – other than weightlifting/bodybuilding what do you enjoy doing? I’m looking for ideas!

When Is a Man’s Arm Considered Big?

Over the years I’ve often wondered how do my overall measurements compare to the average guy – specifically my arms (I know how my weight compares). As I probably  stated before, I’ve always wanted to get my arms to 18″ (flexed, cold) and always seem to fall just short of my goal. Yeah, sometimes life just works out that way.

Now 18″ sure seems a reasonable size when you read about pro bodybuilders with 20, 21, or even 22″ arms. Granted, the pros are more than likely exaggerating their size to maintain a certain mystique, maintain their ego, and even to “psyche” out the competition.  Also, their size is very likely beyond the normal, non-chemically enhanced person. There are also experts, such as Ellington Darden – one of my favorite workout “gurus” of the eighties, who say that because of improper measuring almost all arm sizes are exaggerated (especially with a cloth tape which can add a quarter of an inch to the circumference because of the width of the tape itself).

Anyway,  finding out the stats on the average male arm was tougher than I thought! There are several articles and discussions on the web and they mostly point back to the same one or two sources – Men’s Health magazine among them – and the answer seems to be that an American man of 5’9.5″ at a body weight of 175 has arms which are 13″ in circumference. What I can’t find is if that’s a flexed or unflexed measurement. My guess is unflexed since 13″ seems a bit on the small side to me for a flexed arm of a fully grown man, but I could be wrong.

Now granted I’m a little taller and a lot heavier than the so-called “average” man I’ve referred to above, but in any case my arms are significantly larger than 13″ even unflexed (about 14.75″ unflexed – 16 flexed as of this morning). I, of course, don’t think my arms look that big, but I imagine that’s common among those of us who workout to get both bigger and stronger, and hanging around gyms and guys who workout does mean that I tend to be around people who are, on average, larger than average. Heck, my former training partner’s arms taped at around 18″ and I’ve compared myself to him for years – even when his arms where “only” about 16″ and mine where in that average neighborhood of 13″ (was I really that “small” once?).

My own personal obsession with big arms, and bodybuilding in general,  was probably strengthened when I was first diagnosed with Crohn’s and my weight dropped to below 140 lbs and my arms shrank to 11″ (flexed! – I was literally skin and bones at that point).

However, all the above are just statistics. I think ultimately, a man’s arm is considered big simply when it looks big. I know men who are relatively short (below 5’10”) and have arms that appear massive (Google any male gymnastic team). But in reality, they don’t tape over 16″. Likewise, there are tall men (6′ or more) who appear thin, but their arms tape at over 17″ (think basketball players). Perspective plays a big role in appearance. That along with bodyfat percentage and muscle shape (see examples below). 

Keep lifting, watch your diet so that your bodyfat stays low and ignore the tape. You’ll be surprised at how big your arms look. If you want to find out how big you are compared to other lifters and “recreational” bodybuilders check out my blog post here and participate in my survey to add to the data I’ve collected on this topic.

Oh, and wear shirts one size too small. That’s the fastest way to get big arms. But for the secret to building big arms (which isn’t a secret) look here.

I’m curious as to what other people think. When do you think an arm is “big?” And I, of course, mean in a solid, muscular way.

Onward!

NOTE: In September 2018 I researched average arm size again and found that 13″ still appears to be the standard for a 20 – 29 year old man. However, this number moves closer to 14″ in middle age (50+) presumably due to an increase in body fat however, not an increase in muscle mass. The 13″ arm is also based on a man of average height (in the USA about 5’9″. No doubt taller men may have naturally larger arms and there’s always that one guy out there who never trains but has the arms of a Mountain Gorilla anyway).

Olympic gymnast Jake Dalton. Noted for the size of his biceps – but at a height of 5’5″ his arms likely do not tape over 16″ (couldn’t find anything on Google). However, proportionately to his physique his build is impressive. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
The impressive arm of Peter K. Vaughn (@peter.kv on Instagram – check out his website ). On it’s own it appears big, but check the tape. At 16″ it’s not big by most traditional bodybuilding standards. However, excellent definition and muscle shape – particularly the peak of the bicep – contribute to the appearance of appearing larger than it is.
Here’s my arm at about the same size as Peter’s. It doesn’t appear as big due to my much higher bodyfat percentage at the and the relatively flat shape of my biceps. My forearm looks good though. For reference Peter and I are just about the same height (5’10” and 5’11” respectively).
Here’s my friend Ty Clifton, who is 6’3″ with a long, lean overall physique. On the left his arm measures 18″ and on the right 17.5″. Notice that the smaller arm looks larger due to the increased definition. Because of his height his arm needs to be larger than any of the others I’ve used as an example to appear to be big – which they are! (Photo courtesy of Ty Clifton on Instagram @bigcherryfit).