There’s a principle in physical training called Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands. It essentially means that the type of exercise you do determines your physique. This is easily illustrated by observing the difference between professional marathoners and Olympic shot-put champions. The type of exercise needed for excellence in each sport results in drastically different physiques.
When I finished the Chicago Marathon in October 2014, I had a marathoner’s body. On my long, lanky form, a marathoner’s physique looked almost skeletal. On the afternoon of the marathon, I remember looking at myself in the mirror after I showered. I wondered how I had gone from almost obese to a bag of bones in so little time. I decided to seek a new physical challenge: bodybuilding.
After I recovered from the marathon (which took more time than I expected, as I kept feeling compelled to run 15-20 miles at a time), I sat down with my trainer to iron out a new workout plan. We set a numeric goal of going from 164 lbs to 185, while maintaining about 10% body fat. My exercises would switch from low weight, high rep, heavy cardio to high weight, low rep, low cardio. My diet would change from high complex carb to high protein. My trainer warned me that eating enough (about 4000 calories per day) would be a big challenge, but I dismissed his concerns, telling myself that I’ve never had a problem eating too little.
I had no clue what I was in for.
A Tough Start
I’ll never forget the first day of my workout and diet plan. I showed up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to tackle 4 reps of my sets. I pushed through and actually enjoyed the work. It seemed easier because it took less time. I wasn’t panting and sweating, and I did fewer reps. Exhaustion took about one hour to catch up with me. I remember going out to dinner with a friend after my first bodybuilding workout. After we paid the check, I simply couldn’t stand up. My leg muscles were completely useless after sitting at dinner for an hour. As I braced myself up with my arms and wobbled out of the restaurant, I realized I’d just started playing a whole different game.
My second wake-up call was when the realities of my diet started to set in. Eating 4000 healthy calories per day is not as easy as it sounds. To meet my caloric intake, I bought a bunch of protein bars and ate several throughout the day. When I showed my trainer what I bought, he threw them in the trash. This was after pointing out the high sugar content and list of unpronounceable processed and chemical ingredients. I switched to plant-based proteins, and naturally occurring protein in snacks like almonds, broccoli, hummus, avocado, and peanut butter.
- Eating enough calories with enough grams of good protein is really hard. I tried to eat about 1 gram of protein for every pound I weighed – about 175 grams per day. To do that without loading up on fat, I had to eat lots of lean protein. That’s a lot of dry chicken breast! I would typically have two protein shakes per day, 2-4 chicken breasts, 2-4 eggs, and lots of fresh vegetables, nuts and legumes. I found that trying to add more protein into my established eating routine added too many carbs and fat. So, I had to be extra mindful to cut out unnecessary comfort foods, while adding sources of healthy protein.
- Your mind and body need more rest. When I was doing mostly cardio and toning, I wanted to work out every day. But with weightlifting, my trainer only let me come in every other day. Muscle gains happen when you create tiny tears in the muscle during a strength workout. Then you let those tears heal on a recovery day. If you try to work out every day, you won’t give your muscles time to repair, which is when the actual bulking process happens. Resting facilitates muscle gain. Constant workouts prevent it.
- Cardio is counterintuitive to bodybuilding. During bulking, you’re trying to get more calories in than you burn. Cardio is the most efficient way of burning calories. It will hold back your progress. I cut out all cardio, other than 1 short run per week.
- Diversity is key. If you repeat the same exercises, your body gets used to it and will stop growing. You can’t just do presses every day and expect your pecs to keep growing at the rate they do during the first three weeks. Eventually, your body will wise up and reach stasis. The good news is there are many different ways to work out each muscle group. But you’ll have to challenge yourself to stay on your toes and out of a rut.
- Everything in balance. When bodybuilding, it’s so easy to lose balance. Focus on strength without stability, and your muscles will become tight and knotted. This causes postural issues and poor range of motion. Without exercising counter-balancing muscles, you’ll overdevelop strength in one movement, but be deficient in its opposite. Emphasize your upper body, and you’ll end up with wobbly chicken legs. Exercise your arms without your core, and you’ll lack coordination because you can’t have distal mobility without proximal stability. All that to say, you must create balance. You’ll even need workouts that challenge every part of your body at the right times. It can be a challenging balance to maintain.
Looking Good vs. Feeling Good
- There’s a difference between being in shape and looking good. I see a lot of guys at the gym focusing on looking good. They work only on hot spots like abs, biceps, pecs and glutes, employing static machines that work one muscle group at a time. This may result in an aesthetically pleasing façade. But these physiques fail during functional movements – those that are actually useful in real life. That’s because they haven’t developed stability along with strength. Nor have they employed all the supporting and stabilizing muscles that work with and against the primary muscle groups. A holistic workout practice will yield deeper results functionally, as well as emotionally and spiritually because of the added discipline, intention, and focus it takes to achieve.
- People treat you differently. As someone who grew up a bit of an ugly duckling, one of the biggest surprises after I started adding muscle was how people started treating me differently. Those who wouldn’t have given me the time of day suddenly started paying attention. I became the recipient of more attention than I was accustomed to. And I had to relearn and rethink my personal boundaries.
- I’m now about two years into bodybuilding, with periodic departures to focus on endurance biking or running. Overall, I like the way I look and feel better than when I was exclusively doing cardio. The reason has to do with integrity. When I came out, I felt whole, strong, and brave for the first time in my life. Over time, it became important to me that my external appearance reflected the inner strength I felt. For me, the physical challenge of lifting weights reflects the mental, emotional and spiritual struggle of pushing away my fundamentalist belief structure, coming out in a conservative environment, and struggling against homophobia and inequality. Lifting weights teaches me that opposition builds strength. When I’m struggling with some aspect of life, my whole body reminds me that I’ll come through the other side intact – and stronger.