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My Personal Journey Into Strength Training

One thing I’ve learned is to always write your introductions after you write your post/article. That way you can summarize it after you get your thoughts down. I wanted to give readers a quick insight into how I got into weightlifting. Hopefully, it’ll help you understand why I think certain ways and understand that the reason I criticize or praise certain training methods is because I’ve tried them. I never played any college sports, I wasn’t even that great of an athlete in high school. I didn’t start weightlifting early in life. I actually started kind of late. And there wasn’t some Mr. Miyagi of Weight Lifting making me wax his car in Hanson, Massachusetts.

Occasionally, clients will watch me clean a weight that they were just hip thrusting and call me a “show off.” I always respond with something to the effect of, “Would you trust a trainer that couldn’t lift heavy things/wasn’t mobile/couldn’t demonstrate exercises more perfectly than you can? Probably not.”

This post is my power clean for you. This is my been there, done that.

I learned a lot more through my own personal experiences than I ever did by reading the ACSM Personal Trainer book in college. This will be a pretty lengthy post, so buckle up.

It’s also going to get pretty embarrassing at points, especially the photos.

High School

My freshman year of high school, my hockey coach told me to gain two inches and twenty pounds and I’d be a full-time varsity player the next year. This is truly where my weightlifting journey began.

I began bench pressing in my cellar with an EZ-curl bar and 25 pound plates. I remember doing “chest” workouts where I would complete 500 pushups in five sets of 100 (I didn’t weigh much back then). I also did arms, mostly dumbbell curls and skull crushers with that same EZ curl bar. I did endless sets of crunches and ate like total crap. I gained about 30 pounds throughout high school, none of it due to the weightlifting.

Running distance in spring track is not conducive to weight gain.

As my senior year came to an end, my best friend Matt turned me on to a home bodybuilding website. He was interested in gaining size and leaning out before school, so I went along for the ride. Like high school, I lifted in the basement, benching and curling with the same EZ curl bar. I gained a little bit of size with some structure to my program, but nothing much. I’m not even sure I gained more than a pound of weight that summer.

Hopefully Matt doesn’t kill me for posting this.

 

Freshman Year

I took the fall semester of my freshman year of college off from lifting. I didn’t touch a weight until spring semester, when I decided to check out the gym on the top floor of the SquashBusters Center at Northeastern. It was small and less intimidating than the Marino Center, the big gym on campus.

I worked out three days a week that semester. My split consisted of chest, shoulders, and arms. If I was feeling big, I would double up on the arms or chest day on Saturday.  My reps were consistently in the 8-12 range, not a bad choice for someone looking to fill his shirts better for the lay-deez.

My chest days consisted of mainly dumbbell bench presses and flys. I think I did a press and fly for incline, flat, and decline bench. I might have thrown in dips once in a while, but I honestly can’t remember. My shoulder workouts were all seated presses and lateral raises. Somebody told me that the seated cable row with the V-attachment was for your shoulders, so I did that. I included some shrugs for good measure, as well as some internal/external rotations with the cables. I also did a lot of ab exercises, probably every time I hit the gym. Crunches and leg raises, exercises of the Gods. For arms (which was my longest day, by far), I chose to spend plenty of time doing curls and triceps extensions of every variety. I enjoyed doing 21s, because you get an awesome pump from doing any exercise 21 times in a row.

The following summer, I can remember how pumped (literally and figuratively) I was when I could finally bench press 80 pound dumbbells. I started receiving recognition for my lifting experience (in the form of somebody asking me what I did for my arms) and even upgraded my wardrobe from small t-shirts, to medium ones. I dropped my reps from 8-12 to a more advanced 6-9 (which, in hindsight, was very solid progress).

Look at me filling up that medium shirt.

The only advancement in my diet was the addition of protein powder and protein bars, on top of a steady regime of pizza and cheeseburgers from the d-hall. One day, I ran 12.5 miles, on a whim. Here’s the kicker to all of this: the end of this summer was the first time that I seriously considered being a personal trainer. (If there’s any personal trainers-to-be that don’t get the slight humor in that, consider another career path.)

 

Sophomore Year

In September of my sophomore year, I registered for the personal training class at the school gym (the Marino Center, which I had barely even used before). The class is essentially a semester-long game of Survivor, run by a few senior trainers and the Director of Fitness. The best part is that you don’t need to vote each other off the proverbial fitness island; the people who are eliminated simply aren’t invited back for the next week.

Here’s another distinct memory: I was in a friend’s apartment when I received a phone call from the Director of Fitness. She mentioned my lack of experience in anatomy and physiology and was concerned about the difficulty that I’d have in the class. I wanted to go through with it anyway. I mean, how hard could it be? Head, shoulders, knees, and toes. And biceps. And triceps. That’s it, right?

I should have gone to the PT class dressed like this.

Wrong. The first day we sit down, we’re slapped in the face with what felt like every fitness term known to mankind (but unknown to me, of course). Flexion. Extension. Concentric. Eccentric. Medial. Lateral. Superior. Inferior. And what felt like every muscle in the body on top of that. I was in way over my head.

The first half of that class is somewhat of a blur, but I kept doing alright on the quizzes and kept getting invited back. Anybody noticed how I haven’t mentioned squats, deadlifts, chin-ups, rows, conditioning, or mobility in this post, yet? Right, that’s because I didn’t do a single one of those things until I was taught how to in this class. That’s right. The first time I squatted was while being taught how to teach squatting by personal trainers at the Marino Center.

The second time I squatted? I was demonstrating a squat and attempting to teach somebody else how to do it. Same with deadlifts. I guess the world was depleted of personal trainers in 2010, or something.

By November/December of that same semester, I was still going strong, gearing up for a final interview for a position as a personal trainer. During the interview, the Director of Fitness asked how I was going to keep up with current trends and research in fitness, given that I did not have a health-related major. I’m embarrassed with the answer I gave: the internet. I said I would keep up with research on my own. Way over my head. Anybody seeing the trend here?

I got hired. I have no idea what sparked that idea. I wouldn’t have hired me. But so began another step in my journey to personal training.

 

My Back

Let’s drop the personal trainer subject for a bit and talk about what happened for the next year or so of my life. In January, I began experiencing some pretty severe back pain, enough that I went to a doctor at University Health and Counseling Services. I went on a Friday afternoon or something and the only doctor was from sports medicine. I told them I was a personal trainer at the Marino Center (even though I technically wasn’t, yet) and they let me back to see him.

After only a few minutes, he sent me to the Sports Medicine Department at Children’s Hospital. From there, I went to get an MRI done out in Brookline. But, you see, MRIs are only worth your time if you go back to the doctor that recommended it in the first place. I never did. Instead, I began squatting and deadlifting.

All smiles, post-MRI (getting chicken-fried as my Dad would call it).

I squatted and deadlifted all through that spring semester and summer. My buddy Luke and I lifted at least four or five days a week during that whole stretch. The squats and deadlifts opened up a new split for me: back-chest-legs-shoulders-arms. My back pain went away and I kept getting stronger at all of my upper body lifts. I even started doing chin-ups with weight attached. My warm-up now consisted of about five minutes on a bike and I was doing 10-20 minutes on the bike at the end of the workout. I was running long distance pretty consistently, but eating a bit more. We ate a lot of steak that summer.

The steak we ate.

As the fall semester came and things got busy, my workouts began to suffer. I stopped deadlifting. And my back pain came back. I’m going to guess that I probably stopped squatting too because I hated squatting with a passion. This continued until February of the next year. My back pain was becoming unbearable again, so I went back to see the doctor. As it turns out, I had two herniated discs, L3-L5. At least I had an answer. They recommended physical therapy and I went on my merry way.

*I know that the disc with the MRI photos is around here somewhere, but I can’t find it and therefore cannot post any pictures from it.

At this point, I had just begun training actual clients and decided to skip the physical therapy. I started deadlifting again. And my back pain went away again. I haven’t taken more than two weeks off from squatting and deadlifting since March 2012 and I haven’t felt any pain since.

However, this is not the end of the story. In July or August of 2012, I was going through my usual squat warm-up when I felt a few pops in my lumbar spine and a sudden, incredible pain. Like when someone punches you in the stomach and you can’t tell whether you can’t breath or want to puke. A fellow trainer was looking on and could only say, “That was ugly.” I took the weight off the bar, cancelled all my clients for the day, and drove myself straight to the hospital.

I’m pretty sure that my butt winked and I strained a muscle in my lower back. I got some muscle relaxants for the spasms and took the normal heat and ice approach for 2-3 weeks. And so began my obsession with hip mobility.

Personal Trainer-in-Training

Rewind back to January, 2011. My journey as a PTIT (pronounced PEE-TIT) was a long and arduous trek through a forest of strenuous case studies and boring observations. I became certified through ACSM sometime in May or June. Every time I would meet with my boss, I would try and convince her that I was ready to take clients. And every time, she would tell me otherwise. She was definitely right.

It didn’t quite take a year to complete my PTIT training, as I took about five months off from August to December in order to work a coop outside of the city and live at home. Here’s a brief look at the first real program I ever wrote as a personal trainer:

first program

Pretty awesome, no? I think dumbbell deadlift means dumbbell RDL. Abs were done in a non-stop circuit. Overall, I think this could have looked much worse.

 

Progress

So, how did I get to where I am today from where I was then? I’ve read. A lot. I started with T-Nation, which I still follow, and have branched out from there. I always have at least one book loaded in my Kindle app on my computer and IPhone, as well as one on deck. I have multiple physical books that I leave out on the table. They’re mostly textbooks that I’ve bought myself so I’ll randomly read through a chapter or two whenever I’m not working.

I’ve trained. Not a lot, by most standards, but I’ve made my way through a few programs. 5×5. Texas Method. 5/3/1. I’ve squatted four days a week. I’ve tried Olympic lifting. I gained ten pounds last fall and struggled to do ten pullups. I enjoy experimenting on myself, which pretty much ensures that I never make any long-term progress on any one program before I change it up.

Most of all, I’ve learned a ton from the people I worked with at the Marino Center. I say this all the time, but I honestly believe that I could not have started my training career in a better place, at a better time, than the Marino Center.

4 years, 35 lbs, 2 discs, and lots of hip mobility later.

 

Conclusion

Here’s a quick stream-of-consciousness summarizing my weightlifting life up until now: Gain weight. Pushups. Bench. Arms. Arms. Arms. More arms. Abs. Arms. V-attachement cable row for shoulders. What? Arms again. Training class. Squat. Deadlift. PTIT. Long and arduous trek through a forest of case studies. Hurt back. Deadlift more. Back pain gone. Stop deadlifting. Back pain back. Start deadlifting again. Miracle exercise. Strain back. Mobility. Lots of clients. Lots of programs. Lots of squatting.

That’s where I’m at now. So what are my current goals? I just aim to get a little stronger and better conditioned every month, all while keeping my back pain in check. Whether that’s five more pounds or one extra sprint or one more rep.

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