Muscle Breaking Advice to My Younger Self

Time and age grant a more objective perspective on how you trained when you were young.

As the old saying goes, hindsight is 20/20. I find myself in the bottom half of my forties, and I can truthfully say that I’m just now eligible to look back at my training, nutrition, and lifestyle habits with a critical eye. Self-assessment can go many ways. You need to pack up your ego and give yourself some honest feedback. But what inevitably happens is that we tend to take a somewhat rosy view of our actions as we try to improve our plans and progress through any endeavor.

The truth comes out when you can step far enough away to think of your past self as a different person. Time does this like no other. It’s easier to look at our younger selves as a completely different person and dissect every aspect of every decision. You will find that many of the choices you made were out of inexperience, life circumstances, and a lack of knowledge. And then there were a few that were purely ego-driven, or forced by the impact of peer pressure. Here are just a few thoughts on what I would have done differently.

Less Isolation Work

I have to mention this to drill it into those who fall victim to this practice. It has been said ad nauseam that you need to stick to the compound, multi-joint family of lifts when programming for muscle gain or strength, but so many individuals continue to ignore this time-honored advice.

Ego and misinformation keep people doing pointless isolation work. Every newbie wants bigger arms, right? Do you honestly think that bigger arms can be achieved with a ton of concentration curls, cable work, and partial reps on the preacher bench? You must first form a big piece of granite, before you can even think about chiseling in the detail. You can’t carve a pebble.

I was guilty of a lot of isolation lifting out of pure ignorance. Too many chest flies, concentration curls, and cable press-downs riddled my program, when I should have focused almost exclusively on the bigger exercises. Focus on progressing with bench presses, shoulder presses, rows, pull ups, squats, and deadlifts to build your base of muscle and strength first. The rest will fall into place.

Get Mobile

Stiff joints and tight hips aren’t exclusive to the elderly. The importance of mobility is ever-increasing as an aspect of physical movement. Ask any physical therapist what the most commonly compromised aspects of their patient’s health are, and mobility will assuredly be mentioned.

The fact is that we all can use more mobility work. We tend to relate mobility issues to the elderly, but more and more everyone, no matter what age or stage in life, is sitting, whether it’s commuting, working, or even at the gym (shame, shame!). As the average college student, I spent a significant amount of my day sitting through lectures. I may not have had any real issues with my mobility, but I wish I adopted a stronger habit for it. I stretched after every workout, but it wasn’t the comprehensive mindset that I have today—and now it’s more out of necessity than to increase performance.

Take time out every day to strengthen your mobility habits. Don’t just go through the motions and stretch your chest and hamstrings; focus on shoulder and hip mobility as well. Research dynamic stretching, specific drills for hip range of motion, and shoulder health. You’ll be glad you did. Don’t expect to feel crazy gains in strength or muscle, but you will be doing your proverbial homework for long-term health.

Take the Long View

When you’re a young buck in the gym, you tend to have a very short-sighted vision of where all of this training, intensity, and dedication are going. You get caught up in the work, the results, and the discipline without any real goal in mind. For me, I started to look at competing in drug-tested bodybuilding, and worked toward that. But even then, I didn’t set any real long-term goals for that competition. Toiling away just for the sake of toiling away is all fine and dandy, but it will eventually frustrate even the most energetic lifter. 

Many athletes organically slide from goal to goal, distancing themselves from their past as a traditional lifter. For example, many try CrossFit, or distance running, or even obstacle course racing to fill that void of purpose. For others, the process will need to be more intentional.

Of course, it’s a tough request to have a long-term vision or goal when you’re in your early twenties. For your career, it’s an easier subject to consider, since there is a concrete set of milestones to achieve. But for training it tends to be a tougher nut to crack. Sit down, map out your goals the best you can, and always be open for change.

Be More Than a Bodybuilder

It’s easy to wear blinders when you’re young. You keep your head down and stay in your lane, once you have that goal defined. Whether it’s a college degree, a new job, or a physical goal, we are taught to just grind away at it and pay attention to nothing else. Many of the individuals we’ve looked up to over the years displayed unparalleled focus and drive. These are all wonderful attributes to have, but they are not without consequence.

Looking back, I can honestly say that I was way too focused on training and nutrition. I would sacrifice going to social events, attending outings with friends, and nitpick every second of time out of the gym regarding activity level and food availability. I was slowly making myself miserable, all for the mighty goal of progress.

If I had to do it over again, I would have still trained hard, eaten right and made sure to get plenty of rest, but I would have opted for a more balanced life. I would have strengthened relationships, tried new activities outside of the weight room, and have had a more balanced mindset toward life. Just because you try something different doesn’t mean you’ve tainted the well. You can still drive toward your goal, but just have some fun along the way.

It’s Not Too Late

These are just a few thoughts on how someone like me would have done it differently. I’m sure you have your own set of practices you could have changed or improved on. Be that as it may, know there is always room for change, so move forward a little wiser and a lot more hopeful, whether you’re 20 or 40.