5 Hard Lessons Learned in 5 Years Under the Bar

Lifter Sketch by velvettangerine flickr

I was a relative late-comer to the iron game – I didn’t start lifting until I was 33. Still, I’ve managed to learn a thing or two in the 5 years I’ve been weightlifting. Now I may be a bit of a slow study, but I can still save you some of the pain and trouble I’ve gone through by sharing a few of these hard lessons. Don’t worry . . . there’ll still be many more hard and painful lessons you can learn on your own.

1. Calorie Counting Does Not Work

It just doesn’t. Sorry to break it to ya. Sure, you can lose some weight for a short time by watching your calories. And you may even be able to stretch the weight loss out for a while if you’re severely overweight.

But the simple fact is that the human body is a bit more complex than the math might lead you to believe.

So here’s the truth: when you reduce your energy intake for too long – or by too much – your body will eventually reduce its energy expenditure to compensate. You think that reducing your weekly calorie intake by 3500 will cause you to shed a pound of fat.

But you’re wrong.

It may work like that for a few weeks, even a month or two, but sooner or later you just don’t seem to be losing that entire pound anymore. Half a pound, perhaps. Maybe less. Even more disturbing, you see the percentage calculator on your fancy bodyfat monitor scale showing an uptick of fat by half a percent.

That can’t be right, can it?

Oh, it can. I’ve seen it myself. This is when the dismay sets in. And the doubt. So what’s really going on here?

You see, your body’s not quite as dumb as you think it is. It senses the reduced intake and after a while decides that it better adjust expenditure to more closely match the intake. It doesn’t want you to starve, after all. Your body will lower your energy output (that’s why you’re so fatigued, sleepy, and cold all the time) and maybe eat up a bit of your lean body mass (i.e. muscle) to spare your emergency fat stores. And to piss you off.

Fuck. Fuck. FUCK!

Thankfully, there’s a better way. Since calorie counting won’t lead you to long term sustainable weight loss, you need to think about food a little differently. Food is not just energy . . . it’s also nutrients. Yes, food nurtures your body. So long as you eat the right food.

That being the case, your best bet is simply to eat real food for easy weight loss. Or, if you’re feeling a bit more hardcore, then you can try the steak and eggs diet for even faster weight loss. These foods work with your body to help you shed fat and get healthy.

So quit trying to force weight loss with an ever-shrinking calorie intake – it ain’t gonna work. You can’t outsmart your body. Simply eat healthy and you’ll become healthy . . . reduced weight and all.

2. You’re Not Bulking . . . You’re Just Getting Fat

I didn’t want to believe it. It couldn’t be true. I’d been busting my ass for so many months, eating a shit-ton of protein, and watching the digits on the scale climb higher and higher. I was lifting heavier weights than ever before. I even had to buy a new wardrobe since all my old clothes no longer fit.

I should’ve been jacked.

But pictures don’t lie. And there they were, all up in my face. Front, back and side.

I was fat.

Son of a bitch!

So what the hell happened? Simple, my food intake outpaced my strength gains. Sure I was getting stronger, but not strong enough to justify the excessive amounts of food I was eating.

Believe me; I can pack that shit away . . . even if I’m already full to the brim.

GOMAD was standard fare (a gallon of milk a day). Add in a dozen or so eggs. Three to five protein shakes. A big fat ribeye for dinner . . . with rice or potatoes (gotta get in those carbs, ya know).

It makes me sick just thinking back on it.

But that’s what all the top bodybuilders were doing, right?

Yup. And I was keeping up with the Joneses. Just one problem . . . the Joneses were using steroids. I wasn’t.

And that’s a problem?

It is if you’re eating like I was. A natural lifter doesn’t have the same capacity to turn food into muscle as that of an enhanced lifter.

So I became fat.

Now don’t get me wrong, I had a ton of muscle under all that flab. In my too-tight XL shirts I looked like a freakin’ beast. There was never any question that I lifted. But once the shirt came off, the love handles stole the show. And the back fat. And the moobs.

Those goddamn moobs!

Don’t let this happen to you.

You don’t need 3 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. You don’t need to stuff your face every 2 hours to “keep those amino’s flowin’ bro.” You simply don’t need as much food as you think. Not in the beginning, at least. And certainly not if you’re natural.

Of course, every person is different. You need to learn what works for you and what doesn’t. I can’t offer any one-size fits all recommendations here.

Now what I can offer are a few things for the would-be bulker to consider. But since I’ve already written this stuff before, I think I’ll just direct you to my past articles . . .

Read this for an overview of bulking methods.

Or this if you’re a skinny hardgainer looking to gain weight.

Or this one if you wanna gain muscle, but you’re already skinny-fat.

And I’ll throw in this one to help you consider how much fat gain is acceptable during a bulk.

That should get you started at least. Hopefully you can avoid the “jacked with shirt on, fat with shirt off” syndrome I see in so many lifters.

3. Consistency is King (or, Motivation is a Little Bitch)

So you’ve decided to start lifting, or running, or jazzercising, or whatever. You’re pumped and ready to go. You start off strong . . . just like you always have in the past.

And, just like in the past, the further into your training you get, the harder it is to keep yourself going. It’s becoming less of a boost and more of a chore.

If only I could get a little more motivated . . . like I was in the beginning.

Well, now you’re just fucked. Because you’re looking for motivation to keep you going. It won’t. It can’t. It never will. Not in the long term.

Let me make this crystal clear: motivation is fleeting. Hmmm. . . maybe that wasn’t clear enough. Let’s try again . . .

Motivation. Is. FLEETING!

And the more you rely on it to get your ass up and to the gym, the more and more workouts you’re gonna skip. It’s the truth.

Motivation is good for just one thing . . . getting you started. It always does that beautifully.

The problem isn’t so much with Motivation; she comes and goes as she pleases. It’s her nature. The problem is you . . . thinking that this time, maybe just this time, she’ll stick around for the long haul.

But she never does.

You think you need motivation. But what you really need is persistence. Cold, hard, brutal persistence. Until you can train yourself to keep at it, even on those days when you really just wanna sit on your ass, you will never see anything more than meager gains at best. I speak from experience here.

All is not lost though. Persistence is trainable. It takes time and effort, but you can train yourself from quitter to winner. If you’re willing to put in the work . . .

4. No Pain, No Gain . . . It’s True, Dammit

When I see a well muscled individual, I see someone with a high tolerance for pain. And the bigger the muscles, the higher that pain tolerance.

You cannot grow significant muscle without accepting some pain. Because the only reps that matter are those last few. The ones that hurt. The ones that made you nervous before you even began your set.

So if you’re looking to gain some serious muscle, then you’d best be willing to face the pain. It’s unavoidable.

But there’s a bright side here: along with that pain comes growth. Pain is growth. It teaches you to be strong. First in mind . . . then in body.

5.You Really Don’t Know Shit

I know, I know. You’ve read all the books. You’ve memorized “The New Rules of Lifting.” You’ve gone to the forums and soaked up all the advice, conflicting though it may be. You’ve got a few months training under your belt, a budding young vein on your bicep, and you can name the major muscle groups off the top of your head. Even your skinny-fat friends all say “you’re a muthafuckin’ weightliftin’ genius bro!”

You’re feeling pretty good, aren’t you? I know I was when I hit that stage. But the truth is your head has outgrown your muscles by a factor of ten.

It’s cool. There’s no shame . . . it happens to all of us.

Sadly, many lifters never move past this point. What happens when you know it all? You stop learning. Plain and simple.

Those who’ve gone on to make a real change in their physique — to flip their genetics the bird, so to speak – have done so because they realized they still had more to learn. Much more. They opened their minds, and moved forward as a result.

And those who thought they were the shit and could never see otherwise?

Well, they’re still around. You might even have seen ‘em. Like that scrawny personal trainer who’s always smirking behind the bodybuilder’s back . . .

“Look at that dumb meathead and his isolation exercises. Everyone knows full-body training is the only way to build muscle.”

I could’ve been that guy. I almost was. Fortunately, I opened my mind and moved on. You’d best do the same.


(photo courtesy of velvettangerine @ flickr.)

Stand Up and TAKE CHARGE!

If you're sick of the same 'ol shit; if you're ready to make real and lasting change; or if you're just looking for a kick in the ass, then sign up here to get advice, insight, and inspiration delivered right to your inbox. Always bullshit-free.

I will never share your email address or abuse it with spam.


  1. Ohh I love how straightforward this post is. Amazing post!

    xoxo Zoe

  2. No gettin’ around it…. persistence is key indeed – that’s why it’s so damned hard! Not that I want a body-builder’s physique but it’s interesting how too much is too much (food, that is!) So often it is the excuse to eat more – Hey! I’m in training, I NEED to eat…. yeah, not so much!

    Great post, as per usual, sir!

    • Ha! I’ve had so many “I’m in training, I NEED to eat” moments it’s not even funny. What is funny is that whether I was consistent in my training or not, I would still consistently eat like I was.

      Hence the moobs.


  3. “Those goddamn moobs!”

    hahahahahahahahahaha!!!!!!!!!! I LOLd when I read this. That’s right. LOLd. I’ve only every written that once before. So you can imagine…….

    I don’t have the goals for training like you did. And I’m certainly not eating a shit ton of protein every day. BUT, I have seen the impact of diet vs. exercise. If my diet goes south, my body ain’t staying north.

    Plus: I get totally infuriated when I hear my friends say they’ll have some pizza because they can ‘burn the calories during their workout the next day’. Kill me. Now.

    • I hear ya Raz. Diet is absolutely key to maintaining a healthy physique. Exercise alone ain’t gonna cut it. I can’t tell you how many active overweight people I’ve seen in my day. The Pizza Mentality certainly plays a big part in that, I’m sure.

      And let me tell you Raz, if you’d have seen those moobs, you’d have laughed even harder . . . though I found them anything BUT amusing at the time. Never again.


      • Great article

        I love it, I can relate so much to point 2. Just going up and down the scales bulking and cutting because you just got fat.

  4. I’ve been in the iron game for pushing 15 years and while I’ve added 40lbs to my frame in that time, I’m still not ‘big’ because I was such a skinny runt to begin with. That being said, I’ve learnt a lot in my time and your points here are spot on, in my opinion.

    I must say however that I am guilty of dirty bulking, it’s just too damn fun. Although the natural lifter can only gain something like 0.5 pounds of muscle a week (give or take.. it’s not far off) we eat as if we are attempting to gain 2 pounds a week – which of course is going to be at least half fat.

    This is ok, if you are ok with getting fat and working to burn it off, but then it’s a constant ‘yo-yo’ effect which means you’re gonna gain muscle and fat, then burn the fat (with some muscle) to be barely any bigger than when you started.

    I try to give myself a base waist size and allow a half inch fluctuation when bulking so I can keep my body fat percentage reasonably stable as I gain weight.

    One harsh lesson that I learned was that everyone is different. I have a friend who is significantly more muscular than I am – he looks like he’s been cycling Test all his life but is completely natural. 18 inch arms at something around 10% body fat – with immense strength to go with it. He’s a beast – and for years (we started at the same time) I have been comparing myself with him and obviously feeling inadequate – but you know what? We have both gained a similar amount of muscle, it’s just my base was that much smaller than his. Yes he’s more cut, but he had his Test levels checked and although he is in his low 30’s, he has the levels of a 16 year old. It’s impossible to compete, but in my own way, I am just as successful as he is because I have come just as far relative to my own beginnings.

    It’s about perception – just do what you want to do and work towards your own goals, not those of everyone else.

    Good post!!

    • Damn Jamie. Fifteen years and 40 pounds is no joke. Well done. Of course, it’s difficult for us to ever be content with what we’ve achieved — especially when we compare ourselves to the uber-jacked few. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, so long as it keeps us on track and working that much harder. Sadly, too many people get dismayed and begin to think “I could never have a body like that guy.”

      Then give up as a result.

      To me, there’s no end point . . . no ultimate goal. Because the goal is always changing. Just as we are. So fitness needs to be approached as a way of life. Those who think of it this way also tend to be the ones with the best bodies. Go figure.

      And I’ve gotta say, dirty bulking is fun. Fun as hell. But the clean up afterwards, not so much.


  5. Consistency is by far the most important thing on this list. Sooooo many people give up early. But Rome wasn’t built on a day.

    A lot of guys let ego get in the way when they first start out. Realistically they can only lift light weights with good form. But instead of doing that, they go straight for the heavy ass weights and flail them around. Then they get sore as fuck and stop coming.

    I see this every month at the gym. I’m not strong by any means. I still don’t lift huge weights. I had a shit load of injuries to rehab to even get to this point. But ego is a bitch.

    People just need to stick to their appropriate weights, focus on form, and then show up all the time. Simple.

    • Ahhh . . . the “heavy ass weights.” That was my problem. Fuck form. Fuck control. Just lift heavy shit. It feels great throwin’ heavy iron around like it’s a little baby . . . until you throw your back out. Or separate your shoulder. Or tear your meniscus. Or get tendinitis. Or get snapping elbow syndromes. Or . . . well, many more.

      Yeah, a little control goes a long way here. Another hard lesson learned, I suppose.


  6. I think weight lifting and dieting and health is really simple by now, but that might be because I’ve been experimenting with it a lot over the past 2-3 years and really found the 80/20 things to focus on.

    And they are, as you rightly say, to lift some heavy ass weights consistently (compound exercises), eat steaks and eggs (and broccoli and spinach), and get good sleep.

    • It’s funny how things seem so simple when you’ve been at ’em for awhile. But I’m sure you remember how overwhelming all that conflicting advice could be back when you were a newb.

      You’re right though, 80/20 is key. We start off with information overload, revel in complexity for a while, then settle down to focus on the simple effective 20% that gives us 80% of our results. It seems everyone has to go through that progression themselves though.


      • Ah, right you are about information overload. I think this is ever so prevalent in nutrition and the gym world – there’s so much bullshit and so few people who are incredibly consistent so most people never really get down to the “truth” and become really certain about what works or not.

        My grand strategy for life is to find the 80/20 habits of a certain area, get them under my belt by means of daily habits, then move on to another field where i can reap a bigger profit.

        As for blogging I have a long way to go. But I think within another year I am going to be way better than I am now. Spoke to Kevin on Skype yesterday and he schooled me on some key points to this.

  7. Consistency is key to everything Trevor.

    I think motivation is good in the beginning to build momentum. But once you’ve built it, that’s when consistency takes place and things start to get more fun.

    I’ve personally found that after a while, it’s not the consistency that happens, but the habit i’ve built from over the months of doing things over and over again.

    And of course, realising after a while that the more you learn, the more you realise you still know nothing when it comes to your field of work your pursuing lol

    I suppose thats what helps us carry on with what we’re doing due to effectively realising that there is always another level of growth to strive for.

    • “And of course, realising after a while that the more you learn, the more you realise you still know nothing when it comes to your field of work your pursuing lol”

      Hehe, this REALLY makes me think of Socrates.

    • You’re right Onder, consistency is the key to building habit. And we are our habits, through and through. Once something becomes habit, you can turn on the autopilot and just enjoy the ride, like you say.

      And I like knowing that I know so little in this world. It gives me pause, and allows me to see the world with open eyes and an open mind. Perspective can be the ultimate liberator . . . or the cruelest jailer. It’s our choice.


  8. Great post, Trevor!!! I’ve found that being consistent is so important for me (And others). When I’m consistent about working out I feel better about myself and have the motivation to keep going.

    • Thanks Dan! Consistency IS king. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the hardest traits to master. But like you say, when you are consistent, you feel like you’re up for any challenge.


Speak Your Mind