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.