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: Memories as Motivation

So, the other day I was in a bit of a funk. Unusual for me as I’m normally pretty chipper these days (ha – I make myself giggle), but like everyone else I can get a good case of the “woe is me” and “life stinks” going on. This particular case was about the usual these days: “why can’t I lift this (insert heavy object name here)? I could last year. Easily!” or “can’t I bench more than that?” or “why does it hurt when I bend?” or my perennial favorite, “how come my shirt sleeves seem to have so much room in them?” (sleeve gapitis – it’s a real thing, Google it. Seriously.) All in all, I had a serious lack of motivation and started looking back to the “good old days” through pictures and social media posts.

What I found depressed me further. Here’s me goofing off after trying to climb one of Colorado’s 14,000 footers:

colorado

Here I am running a 5K:

rose run

Here I am looking possibly as buff as I ever have:

buff dave

Here I am about to go surfing for gosh sake:

surfing

And the coup de grâce, here’s the weight I was benching just a year ago. 255 for reps and sets:

255

All the makings of a good sob fest and longing for the glory years. Are they gone? Am I a has been? Has age finally caught up with me? Questions I’m sure most of us have asked ourselves and if you haven’t, you will.

But, you know what? I decided instead of wallowing in self-pity that I was going to use these images to motivate me.

My lungs and legs are still good. I can climb mountains. Maybe not summit, but I didn’t do that before anyway. I was climbing in Idaho just this past summer (well after my heart rehab).

I can still run a 5K and did just this past July. I bet I can beat my time next year!

I’m increasing weight in my bench each week. I can keep going and bench even more than I did a year ago!

And as far as looking buff – well, modesty prevents me from saying so judge for yourself:

dave gym (2)

Surfing? Sorry, that was a one and done! Fun, but there are sharks out in the ocean.

The best is yet to come.

Onward!

Fitness Quest: Spring and Summer 2018

Wow, it’s been a long time since I’ve posted (April) so there’s a lot to catch up on. Mostly good…

Crohn’s: we, my gastroenterologist and I, have decided to change my medication and I’m no longer on Humira and have switched to Entyvio (vendolizumab). She, my gastroenterologist, strongly suspected that the Humira wasn’t keeping me as well controlled as I thought and after consultation with my cardiologist – who now gets consulted by every doctor I have – recommended that I try something else. I’m all for anything that can better control my symptoms, of course, and so I now get infusions instead of taking a weekly injection. I’ve had some flares since starting the new treatment, including one that sent me to the emergency room while traveling out of town.

The issue wasn’t the Crohn’s directly, as the pain wasn’t that bad, but dehydration

ambulance architecture building business
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

brought on by the Crohn’s. I just wasn’t going to take a chance since we think that a Crohn’s attack brought on my heart attack and my symptoms (severe chills) were just too unusual for me. I was so cold, inside my hotel room under my blankets, that if I were outside camping I would have thought I had hypothermia.

Long story short, one ambulance ride and two IVs of fluid later, I was back at my hotel feeling a whole lot better.

I’ve had one or two other minor flares since starting the treatment, but I’m still within what they call the “ramp up” phase of the infusions so the drug hasn’t reached it’s full efficacy (full effectiveness) yet. My next infusion is August 9th so we should know by then.

In addition to the Entyvio, we are also being more aggressive in treating my anemia – presumably caused by the Crohn’s – and have started getting iron infusions as well. Interestingly enough, if these work I’ll only need two and the benefits will last months and possibly years! The first infusion was this week and so far no side effects so we know I didn’t get too much iron. The second is next week and it will then be a few weeks after that before we know if it works. If all goes well I’ll have more energy and actually be breathing easier as well. Which means, you guessed it, less strain on the heart (concern #1).

Cardiac Health: I finished my cardio rehab with flying colors. My exercise therapist said I was a star pupil and an example for others and sent me off with instructions to

black and white blood pressure kit
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

continue my work and a hope that he never sees me again – at least in rehab. If anyone out there has a heart issue and is offered the opportunity to take rehab DO IT! I left knowing my body better and more importantly my limits. I can judge when I might be pushing too hard and, just as importantly, when I’m not pushing hard enough.

Thanks to rehab I had the confidence to run in the Rose Run again this year.  This is the annual 5K to support breast cancer research held in Petersburg, Michigan in July and Burbank, California in October. If there are two more disparate communities to host the same event out there I couldn’t tell you where they are! Anyway, I didn’t beat my time from last year (sob), but I finished feeling good and, here’s the important part, without a cardiac event!

Massage:

board brown daylight destination
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I got my first deep tissue massage. I’ve been having some intermittent muscle pains, especially in my chest, and my primary care physician suggested massages as a regular treatment. Well, while traveling on business I was a spa in Saratoga Springs, NY and some free time so I treated myself to a mineral bath and a deep tissue massage. Wow! I had no idea how tight I was until my masseuse started her work. I was never in pain, but came close. She also confirmed that I had a couple substantial “knots” in my chest that one massage wasn’t going to get rid of. So she gave me a couple stretches to do on my own and suggested fascial stretch therapy. I’ve been looking into this and will likely give it a try within the next couple weeks. I’ll blog more on this later.

Yoga: 

man wearing white pants under blue sky
Photo by antas singh on Pexels.com

I did start yoga, but have fallen off the wagon. I need to get back on it as this does help with stress, breathing, flexibility, and a lot of other benefits. I been using routines on youtube led by Adriene. Her videos were suggested by a friend and I find her teaching method to be easy to follow and a good introduction to yoga. Plus, you can do it from your home. I’m sure most would say that a video can’t replace a good in person instructor, but honestly, I’m not reading to show my downward dog in public yet – let alone a warrior three!

Nutrition: Um, yeah, about that. Did I mention that I was traveling a lot? I have a lot of “adjustments” to make.  Moving on…

beef blur bread bun
Photo by Foodie Factor on Pexels.com

Overall Fitness: I’m still lifting weights a couple times a week. Not seeing much progress in this area and I haven’t been pushing. It’s time to make a few changes and a few gains. I can’t go heavy on lifts like the bench press anymore (see cardiac health) but as long as I don’t raise my blood pressure I can do pretty much everything I used to. Weight lifting was part of cardio rehab so I see no reason not to continue. Too many people don’t realize that strength training is especially important as we get older.

man in grey shirt and black bottom lifting barbell
Photo by Frame Kings on Pexels.com

I’ve read that the average man without training loses about 10 pounds of muscle each decade after the age of 30 (yes, 30). Regular resistance training (i.e. weights) can slow down and even reverse that loss. In fact, I would say in my case, I was actually at my strongest in my late forties. I may never bench 350 again but I can be stronger than I am now and less likely to fall and break something! I suggest you do the same.

Onward!

Mediterranean Diet

Fitness Quest: September 2017

A busy month for me as it turns out that was pretty good all in all despite getting back some iffy blood tests from my doctor on Monday. Nothing terribly serious, but we’ve got a couple things to watch regarding my liver enzymes as they spiked which is an indication of liver damage which is one of the side effects from my medication. So far no word on an ultra-sound to check things out, so I’ll follow-up. The numbers aren’t very high above the normal range. Everything else was pretty good though except for my iron and vitamin D levels. So back to the supplements. Ugh.

Crohn’s Update: In addition to the above, I’m actually feeling pretty good these days. I have energy it seems – which may be in part to the iron, vitamin B and other supplements. But I’m not complaining. Still not “normal” by most people’s standards, especially in the bathroom if you get my drift, but pretty darn close I think (i.e. no accidents or emergencies in a long time). Met with my new gastroenterologist and like her a lot. Very good doctor/patient rapport and she did her homework on my case before coming seeing me!

Workouts: I got all my weight workouts in despite a tough rehearsal schedule for the show I’m in (It Came from Mars at the Toledo Rep). This included two on Thursday, one before rehearsal in the gym (shoulders and back) and one after rehearsal with my brother-in-law (chest). In the past week I’ve been feeling particularly good. I’m waking up better in the morning and getting my daily push-ups (up to 30 per set) and concentration curls (gotta build that biceps peak) each morning.

Results are coming with my weight training, though slower than I’d like (naturally). My arms – the left one at least – are back over 16 inches cold and I think look a lot better (more defined – they are also harder it seems). Probably more importantly, I’m getting more reps in per set with my bench and increasing weight in other lifts. Not at my strongest yet, but not bad for an old man (8 reps at 225 for three sets currently). The goal is still 25 continuous reps at 225. Getting there slowly – thought my brother-in-law and training partner is getting stronger by the workout lately. 

Speaking of who, he unintentionally provided some big motivation this week. During our Sunday workout it was pretty obvious that he had his “swole” on – as in his short sleeve shirt was stretched to its max. Turns out he’s gone through a recent growth spurt sometime in the last three months, if not in the last couple weeks, especially in his arms and chest.  He now leads our “arms race” by a little more than an inch and is still growing. It’s a mystery to me why after several months of essentially the same workout he grew, though I’ve read somewhere that muscle growth occurs in spurts and isn’t a straight line gain kind of thing. He thinks it’s just from being consistent which is true as we’ve rarely missed a workout in the past year or so, I think maybe he adjusted his diet somehow or perhaps unbeknownst to us he was “belted by gamma rays*” though he isn’t turning green. However, instead of being jealous (okay, maybe a little) as I may have been when we were younger, I’m finding myself motivated to hit it harder in the gym and other workouts to catch up. Or at the very least, not fall farther behind. So even though we shouldn’t judge or compare ourselves to others, a little competition between friends is a great motivator it seems.

jacobsladder-3-full

Cardio: thanks to my sister, I’m really stepping up my step game (pun intended). She’s been pushing a weekly “workweek hustle” on Fitbit and gotten several others to join in. I used to think I walked a lot during the day but now, whew! I’m also working harder to keep up with her.

Discovered a new cardio device at the College gym called “Jacob’s Ladder” (here’s their website – I’m not reimbursed for this endorsement btw) If you haven’t used one of the things and have the opportunity to do so – DO IT! One of the toughest cardio workouts I’ve ever had and it also works the arms and legs at the same time.

Nutrition: I met my protein goals most days this week, thanks to Muscle Milk and protein bars (again, not an endorsement – research all supplements before using). I’m surprised at how difficult this is. Especially without increasing fats, which unfortunately, I have not mastered. However, I have cut down on my carbs including simple sugars considerably. Turns out you can live quite well without french fries. Who knew?

Other Cool Things this Month: got an unexpected and random compliment on my triceps; had a pleasant conversation with a cashier about Fitbits – the young ladies really like the leather band it seems 😉; and had another good conversation about working out in general late in the week with another friend. 

All in all a surprisingly motivating week.

Onward!

*obscure reference to lyrics from a Marvel cartoon show in the 1960s. Bonus points if you know which one and just saying “Hulk” doesn’t count.

More bonus points if you know where the featured image is from.