Brad Borland is a strength & conditioning specialist, cancer survivor and the founder of WorkoutLab.
We all would love to go back in time with what we know now and get a “do-over” when it comes to gaining muscle. With the wealth of information we have access to today, it could have saved us a lot of time and frustration and helped us build muscle a lot faster.
Though I am a huge believer in trial and error and the need to explore, fail and learn, there is something to be said about entertaining the fantasy of reliving the past and righting all of your wrongs. Now, your own list may be drastically different than what I deem important, but with 25 years of training under my belt I view looking back on all of my experiences with much more of an all-encompassing perspective. I find my wishes to be more on the side of balance and being smarter about training instead of bigger and stronger.
Tip #1 - Pull back on isolation exercises
This would seem like a no-brainer on the surface but give your training an honest look in the past few years. Have too many isolation exercises crept into your program? Do you find yourself doing that ridiculous high cable biceps pose curl thing in front of the mirror? Could you do more good-ole-fashioned heavy curls or reverse-grip biceps chins?
Don’t get me wrong, I am all for a few fun moves in training such as lateral raises, curls and the occasional leg curl, but nothing packs on the mass like bench presses, shoulder presses, chins, rows, squats, lunges and dips. These moves will get you stronger and bigger faster without the fluff and wasted effort and time. It will also allow you to focus better on the few exercises you decide to do instead of spreading yourself thin with too many angles, sets and programs.
Not only do I wish I would have stuck to these basic moves, I also would have done less angles and more volume. What I mean is instead of performing four or more angles for chest, back or legs I would have chosen only one or two moves and increased the volume drastically on those few moves. So, to replace four moves at three sets a piece for chest, I would go for two moves at five or six sets each. Keep it simple.
Tip #2 - Stretch for improved mobility
Before you stop reading, hear me out. Mobility can account for drastic gains in strength and size – here’s how. I was a bad squatter for the longest time. Unable to descend to the floor with much range of motion I would pile on the weight for low reps in hopes of packing on the necessary muscle so that my legs would one day, hopefully, rub together as I walked – a boy can dream!
After some time I became plagued with lower back pain, glute and hamstring tightness and the inability to effectively make the squat work for me. My young mind chalked it up to the fact that I was a tall guy and wasn’t genetically able to squat correctly.
Putting in my time on the leg press I always wanted to make squats work for me. So, I needed to approach it from a different perspective. Instead of looking at the squat as the problem I needed to dissect my form, my function and my weaknesses. I started to aggressively stretch my glutes and hamstring for better mobility, I reduced my weight on the squat bar to drastically embarrassing (at the time) amounts and “spent my time under the bar” meaning that I needed to squat often, deep and do no less than 10 reps per set.
I am thoroughly convinced that my consistent stretching regimen, specifically in my glutes, accounted for the biggest change in my squatting technique. Don’t neglect your mobility!
Could I have scaled back training a little and lived a fuller, more well-rounded lifestyle while still able to compete and challenge myself in the gym? Absolutely!
Tip #3 - Have a clear long-term vision
As a young trainer, I was a huge fan of professional bodybuilding. Before the internet was as big as it is today, I would go out and buy the latest muscle magazines and scour the pages for the latest information on training and nutrition. I even took it a step further and competed in many drug-tested bodybuilding competitions placing well and even winning a few.
But as a younger man, I never had that crystal clear vision of what I was after. Sure, I just wanted to get bigger and bigger – a physique that would do well on the stage but I never really honed-in on my overall goals. I knew I wouldn’t compete forever so I needed a big picture plan. Something to put into practice for a lifetime – an ideology about training and nutrition that would continue my journey as it fit into everyday life.
Whatever you decide regarding training and nutrition, be sure to have a clearly defined vision in front of you. Not just a short-term, disposable goal but one of long-term application. Once that is established, the steps to take reveal themselves and it simply becomes a step-by-step process to put into action. I am not referring to specifics such as achieving certain bodyweight or body fat percentage but an overall philosophy about your health and fitness that can easily be translated to any phase of your life.
Tip #4 - Be more than a bodybuilder
Another pitfall I can look back on with a slight cringe is my devotion to one type of training and one type of environment. Bodybuilding-style lifting was my main and only mode of training. I was (and still am) a big fan of the movie Pumping Iron. So, as a young impressionable man (boy) I was drawn in and wanted my training experiences to emulate what I saw on the screen.
Training at the local gym for hours and hours every day became my new life. No matter what happened at school, what the weather was like or what time of day it was, I made my trek (on bike) to the gym to meet up with my “new family” and lift. It was great! Two to three hours per day I was pumping iron just like the bodybuilders from the seventies.
Little did I know at the time I was sacrificing a lot for little reason. Looking back I could have tried other physical pursuits and events such as running, recreational and school athletics and other new and interesting activities. I was way too afraid of losing my hard-earned muscle mass, which was difficult for me to gain in the first place. Now that I think about it, as long as I was training, I could have done a ton of extracurricular activities and been not only fine but better for it!
Tip #5 - Don’t worry so much about muscle and have a life
This goes hand-in-hand with the above point. At the time I worried so much about muscle. Specifically when you compete in bodybuilding you find yourself obsessing over everything training and nutrition related. Your next meal and training session are always on your mind, you constantly think of new, more effective ways of training and you don’t do anything to jeopardize your efforts in the gym such as hanging out too late or eating bad foods.
To say that I missed out on a lot (of life) is an understatement. Now, the point could be argued for those that are high-level athletes with a lot on the line – it is their livelihood. But I was a low-level bodybuilder competing for fun – no prize money, no endorsements and a real life to live outside of competition. Could I have scaled back training a little and lived a fuller, more well-rounded lifestyle while still able to compete and challenge myself in the gym? Absolutely!
I was contradicting my love for Pumping Iron and my admiration for Arnold in his own bodybuilding career. Unlike many of the bodybuilders featured in the movie, Arnold was a unique individual who never took himself too seriously and lives a very balanced life filled with friends, outside interests and a little partying. So, looking back I only took one aspect of that lifestyle I saw on screen and went full tilt! I was unable to see the bigger picture of balance and subsequently life.
Where do you stand?
Learn from the past, apply those lessons and never stop looking for better, more balanced ways to approach your training and nutrition goals. It’s not rocket science and you aren’t in it for fame or money, so lift some weight, eat right, get some mobility, try new things and enjoy the journey.
It’s never too early or too late to look back on your own experiences. Whether you are new to training or have been at it for a while, you will always have the ability to stop, look at your past, look at where you currently stand and make any necessary adjustments. Training, nutrition and this whole fitness thing should be an organic journey with the ability to bend and evolve as you live your life. Don’t neglect other aspects of your life and try to find a balance. I finally did.