My fitness journey

Almost two decades ago I started working out at a gym, thus began my fitness journey. In all that time I’ve made a whole lot of progress and have finally landed in a place where I’m ecstatic with how I look.

A friend suggested that I blog about my experience, not because I’m a personal trainer or some fitness guru, but because I’m not — I’m just a nerd who started fumbling his way around a gym.

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June 2011 to March 2018

Initially I resisted this idea because I have zero professional experience in the subject — my Computer Science degree gives me cred to suggest the best sorting algorithm for your dataset, not the optimal superset for the best shoulder workout.

But then Daniel wisely reminded me that I’m the world’s leading expert on my journey, a story that others might find useful. So after giving it some thought, here we are.

I’m blogging about it not because my path was the best or only one, but to show that it might not look like what you would expect. My hope is that in these posts you find something that resonates and helps you on your own individual journey.

To prevent this blog post from being insanely large, I’ve broken it into smaller posts:

tl;dr, here are my fitness “secrets”:

  • Persistence & habit – making working out an integral part of my daily life & schedule
  • Gym familiarity – being comfortable going to the gym and working out without feeling out-of-place
  • Workout repertoire – having a large selection of workouts that I can do based on how my body is feeling on any given day
  • Avoiding vice calories – not drinking alcohol has made it easier for me to consume fewer hollow calories

If you have questions about my journey drop a comment and let me know!

An inconsistent, persistent journey

[This post is one in a series about my fitness journey. Consider starting at the beginning.]

Last month I turned 40, which means I’ve been on my fitness journey for almost 18 years. The thing that’s most amazing to me is that the past 5 years have been the best part. To phrase it differently, I’ve been happier with my fitness and my fitness progress in my late 30s than I have at any other point in my life.

The journey to my current body hasn’t always been a consistent one. There are some good long stretches when I’m on my workout game, doing all the right things, and feeling great. There are many short stretches, measured in days or weeks, when I can’t muster up the energy to get to the gym or are too stressed out to make it happen. There are even some longer stretches when I was suffering from depression or injury and workouts simply never happened. But I’m doggedly persistent and such a creature of habit that I’ve gotten myself back to the gym and on my routine after those times.

Every person’s fitness journey is different and we all get on and off that path at different times in our lives. Regardless of where you are on your own journey, remember that it is a journey, not a destination, and our bodies are a perpetual work-in-progress at every stage of our lives.

Food and supplements

[This post is one in a series about my fitness journey. Consider starting at the beginning.]

Having the best, most fastidious workouts won’t help if you aren’t putting the right things in your body to power those workouts. I would love to sit here and tell you that I meal-plan and meal-prep every week, never eat out, and have figured out the master formula for my food consumption. I would also be lying through my carb-filled teeth.

Workout drinks and protein shakes

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I get up around 5a every morning and my day starts with a pre-workout shake. Specifically a scoop of Cellucor C4 original pre-workout powder (pink lemonade flavor) in water. I’ll admit that one of the best things about this for me is the caffeine — I’ve become rather dependent on it for waking me up in the morning after taking it regularly for quite a while. It often plays a little gymnastics on my empty stomach so I always need to wait a bit before leaving the house for the gym just in case it’s One Of Those mornings when a close proximity to the bathroom is advised.

I don’t eat anything before a workout beyond the shake. I’ve tried numerous times over the years to eat something prior and every time I get nauseous in the middle of my workout. A couple of times I’ve actually puked. An exception is that I’ve had good luck eating a Lara Bar fifteen minutes before a cardio run.

After my workout I drink a protein shake. For the past few years that’s been a Vega Sport Protein powder (chocolate flavor). When I first started taking supplemental protein it was whey based. When I finally admitted how lactose intolerant I’d become back in 2007 I changed over to soy- and egg-based protein powders. The egg-based protein didn’t last long for me because they all tasted vile. Sometime around 2013 I switched to a pea-protein which has been a really good choice.

I have another protein shake at 3p in the afternoon. This helps tide me over between my 11a lunch and my ~6:30p dinner. Sometimes I also have another one before bed if dinner was light on protein.

The only additional supplement that I take is vitamin D. That’s because I live in the northern latitudes and winter sucks without it.

Meals

For breakfast every morning I have homemade breakfast burritos. This is the only decent meal prep that I consistently do. On Sundays I make 5 egg and spinach burritos and warm them up in the microwave before work. This tides me over until my mid-morning snack. Before I became lactose intolerant I would have a cup of greek yogurt to get my day started. That was also a very quick, low-effort dose of protein in the mornings.

I work at a cushy desk job and have a fair amount of control over when I eat lunch. That’s good because around 11a I’m starving. Some of that is for being up at 5a and working out in the morning. Some of that is my body being in the habit of eating lunch at 11a start back when I worked for IBM and wanting to get a jump-start on the lunch rush.

I pack lunch into work almost every day. Usually it consists of a substantial turkey sandwich on multi-grain bread, an apple, and peanut butter to dip the apple into. Sometimes it’s leftovers from what we had the night before (pasta with red sauce, lentil salad, etc) or some mix of that and a sandwich. I try to avoid eating out because it’s expensive.

We usually have dinner around 6:30p. Daniel does almost all the cooking in our house so we eat whatever he puts together. Daniel is a vegetarian and we are both lactose intolerant, so we eat very very little cheese and have a largely meat-free household. Dinners vary but could be anything from Italian Field Roast Sausage and spinach in red sauce over whole-wheat pasta, black beans and greens from the garden over quinoa, homemade pesto (with basil from the garden!) and tofu over pasta, or something from Isa Chandra’s Isa Does It vegan cookbook. I eat whatever Daniel makes because who in their right mind would turn down having tasty food made for them every single night?

Snacks

I pretty much eat constantly. I am not hypoglycemic (verified by my doctor) but I become a hangry bitch if I go too long without food. This is so notable that Daniel carries around granola bars in his pockets to poke me with if I seem irritable.

Accordingly, I snack throughout the day. Over the years what this looks like has varied but in the recent past it’s been granola bars of some sort, such as Kind Bars or Larabars. I go through at least 2 of these a day, generally around 10a and 1p. We’re always on the lookout at our local grocery store of when these are on sale for $1/bar and buy 5 dozen bars at a time.

At night before bed I’m often needing something. Often this is a bowl of Kashi cereal with unsweetened almond milk. Sometime’s it’s a spoonful of peanut butter or another protein shake.

Food in review

A typical food day, not including water, looks like this:

  • 5a – Cellucor C4 original pre-workout shake
  • 7p – Vega Sports Protein shake
  • 8p – egg and spinach burrito
  • 10p – Larabar
  • 11p – turkey sandwich on multigrain bread with an apple and peanut butter
  • 1p – Larabar
  • 3p – Vega Sports Protein shake
  • 6p – dinner
  • 10p – Kashi cereal with unsweetened almond milk

Vice calories

I think most people would be surprised at how many hollow calories they end up consuming with what they drink. I never drink alcohol or coffee which probably saves me several hundred calories a week (and probably thousands of dollars a year). Not because I think these things are in any way bad or immoral, but because I’ve never acquired a taste for them.

I’m originally from the south, so I do have a sweet tooth and love coke (soda or pop for some of you). When I first started at IBM in 2000 where there was free soda in the fridge I had way too many sodas a day. Hundreds of calories of high-fructose corn syrup. I now shudder at the thought. Eventually I pared down to one soda a day. In the past few years I’ve whittled that down to one soda a week.

These days I have a water bottle on my desk that I refill several times a day from the tap. This keeps me well hydrated (sometimes too much) but it means I leave my desk and walk around a bit too. Best of all, it’s both free and free of calories.

I think it’s unreasonable to ask most people to stop drinking alcohol or totally give up their lattes. I do think it’s important that we realize how many calories we’re consuming in what we drink and think about how that either furthers our fitness goals or hinders them.

Food prep is my weakness

Meals and meal prep is, hands down, the weakest part of my fitness routine. Overall I eat pretty healthy, but I could and should be much better about food planning. I believe this is the thing that is preventing me from continuing to achieve my current fitness goals.

Scrawny to Brawny

For the longest time I could never seem to get above 150lbs no matter what I tried with workout or diet. One day in my late 20s I came across the book Scrawny to Brawny and realized just how many calories I needed to eat based on my (high) metabolism and let me tell you it was eye-opening. I followed that food diet for several months and was able to put on several pounds of muscle before I hit the next plateau.

As of this writing I’m sitting in at 160lbs and the heaviest I’ve ever been is 168lbs. It still takes a lot for me to put on weight. I’d love to see what 180lbs of muscle mass looks like on my frame, but that’s going to require some major changes in both my diet and my workouts.

Next post: An inconsistent, persistent journey

My workout routine

[This post is one in a series about my fitness journey. Consider starting at the beginning.]

I’ve always thought that muscular guys must have a very strict, well designed, and methodical workout routine. And for all I know many of them do. I, however, don’t and have found success in less structured workouts.

I workout one hour a day, 6 days a week. Two upper-body days, two lower-body days, and two cardio days. My schedule looks like:

  • Monday – upper body
  • Tuesday – lower body / core
  • Wednesday – cardio (running)
  • Thursday – upper body
  • Friday – lower body / core
  • Saturday or Sunday – cardio (running)

Upper body

On upper-body days I generally decide what I’m doing when I get to the gym and see what equipment is available and how my shoulder is feeling. I tore something in my right shoulder a few years ago and had a PRP procedure to fix it. It’s been much better but I always adjust my workouts based on how it’s feeling in the moment.

My upper-body days usually involve dumbbells, the pull-up bar, and a cable machine. I like to do superset of opposing muscle groups. So if I do a seated shoulder press I will superset that with a wide pull-up. I aim for enough weight that I can do 4 sets of 12 reps each. A decade ago that looked more like 4 sets of 6 reps each using heavier weights. But as I said prior, my workouts have evolved and morphed over time.

Some common superset exercises that I do on upper-body days.

Other non-superset exercises that get thrown in the mix:

I don’t do all of these every upper-body day, but they are all part of my standard repertoire that I pull from based on equipment availability and how my shoulders are feeling.

Lower body and core

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When I first started out I only did upper-body workouts. That’s a common newbie mistake as it turns out. Eventually I decided that I needed to incorporate lower-body and core workouts into my routine. At one point about 7 years ago I was really good about doing really solid leg and ab workouts – weighted traveling lunges, squats, you name it.

Then I hurt my back on a squat machine and lower-body days went to hell. For years after that my lower-body and core days turned into core-only days. It’s only been in the last 6 months that I’ve started, again, incorporating focused leg exercises into my routine.

Here are some of my current leg/core exercises:

Again, I don’t do all of these every lower-body / core workout, but some mix of them based on how I’m feeling and what equipment and machines are available.

Functional Fitness

Over the past three months I’ve recently shifted to doing more functional-focused exercises. Before this I was exercising not to improve a given activity, but to build muscle and improve how I looked. Now I’m starting to focus on exercises that help other athletic activities that I do, in this case partner acrobatics.

Basing in partner acrobatics requires really good grip strength so I’ve started focusing on exercises to strengthen my grip, like hammer curlsbarbell suitcase iso-hold, and loaded hang iso-hold. Overhead moves like elevators focus on shoulder strength and stabilization, so I introduced the push press into my upper-body days. And many of the moves, like pitching, really engage your quads and gluts so squats have gotten a renewed focus.

Cardio

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When I started out, cardio at the gym was mostly elliptical or the rowing machine. In 2004 my friends convinced me to do the Austin Distance Challenge (ADC) with them. The ADC is a collection of progressively longer races leading up to a marathon at the end. I’d never run before so this was a whole new experience for me. I did complete the ADC that year, including the Motorola Marathon in Austin! Since then my cardio has all focused around running.

On Wednesdays at the gym I do a quick 30-minute run and on the weekends I go out running for an hour or more with friends.

For a while I was doing a fair amount of half-marathon distance running. That much cardio isn’t necessarily great for building muscle so I’ve eased back on that and doing more high-intensity, shorter-distance runs.

Areas for improvement

As attention-detailed as I am, it’s almost embarrassing to admit that I don’t keep track of how much weight I’ve lifted and what exercise I do when. I go to the gym and I lift weights that I remember being as heavy or heavier than what I lifted before. I lift to exhaustion and then focus on a different muscle group.

I am certain that I could get a better, more focused workout if I kept better tabs on my exercise progress and weights. But I’ll be honest: I’m lazy. I hate carrying around a phone or paper to track my progress throughout the gym. Not having a phone also means that I don’t get distracted and stay focused on working out, not texting or checking Facebook.

I also suck at flexibility exercises, which are going to be critical to keep making progress in partner acrobatics. I hate stretching but I need to start solidly incorporating that into my workout.

Next post: Food and supplements

Machines, dumbbells, and barbells oh my!

[This post is one in a series about my fitness journey. Consider starting at the beginning.]

When I started working out at a gym in 2000 I knew literally nothing about lifting weights. I remember spending most mornings at the gym on the elliptical or treadmills because at least I knew how those worked. The gym’s cardio equipment was in the same large open area as the free weights and the machines so while on the treadmill I could see other people using the machines. Eventually I got up the courage to go check out some of the machines and even later the free weights.

Weight machines

Turns out that starting strength training using the machines was a pretty decent idea for me. In general machines have diagrams that outline what muscles they exercise and how to make the movements. Most of them are isolation exercises – they focus on a specific set of muscles by restricting the range of motion. It doesn’t mean you can’t hurt yourself on a machine (the worst I’ve ever hurt myself at the gym was over a decade later using a squat machine) but there are fewer things that can go wrong compared to using free weights.

At that time in my life I was obsessed with improving my chest. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent on the bench press and butterfly press machines. Eventually I probably tried every machine in the gym that exercised the upper-body. That was long enough ago that I don’t remember my actual exercise routine, but I distinctly remember starting with machines because I felt they were easier.

At some point I also incorporated cable machines into my workouts. These seemed like a nice middle-ground between machines and free weights because they had a greater range of motion than machines but less than free weights.

Free weights

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Dumbbell incline butterfly press – June 2017

Eventually I eased my way into free weights thanks to diagrams in Men’s Fitness. I was a regular subscriber to Men’s Fitness (for the articles, not the super hot men, I swear) desperately searching for the secret to putting some muscle mass on my skinny frame. I found it useful to watch people (usually men) do some exercise with free weights and then find that exercise in a magazine to explain it. That way I had a real-life example of someone doing the exercise and a reference for what muscles it was exercising.

Early on when using free weights I tried using the barbell bench for bench presses. Without a spotter. After almost hurting myself and yet being embarrassed to ask anyone to spot me I’ve very seldom used the barbell bench since. Almost all of my upper-body workouts involve some combination of dumbbells and cable machines, not barbells. I’ve slowly started to introduce barbells on the squat rack into my lower-body workouts, but that’s the extent of it.

Gym etiquette

Moving from machines to free weights is more than just knowing what exercises to do, it also involves learning some unwritten gym etiquette and picking up on social clues. With machines, if no one is on it you can go use it until you are done. The machine is in one place and doesn’t move, so you don’t have to worry about being in someone else’s way.

With free weights you are now mobile. You could pick up a pair of dumbbells from the rack and use them right there to do dumbbell curls. And you would be an asshole because you are now likely blocking access to the other dumbbells on the rack. Instead, you want to move out of people’s way and use an available bench or other floor space.

It’s also more common for people using free weights to do supersets. That’s where you do two different exercises back to back, usually on opposing muscle groups. This often involves needing two different sets of free weights or possibly two different pieces of equipment. But the hitch is that you don’t have the gym to yourself, you have to share it with other people. So hogging 4 different pairs of dumbbells so you can do 4 supersets just makes you rude, not efficient.

No one tells you this stuff like this, it’s something you either pick up from watching others or you are That Person that everyone hates and secretly wishes would stop showing up.

Personal trainers

Most of what I’ve learned about working out I learned from watching other people at the gym or reading about it. However, I’ve had two personal trainers over the years that were really useful. The first personal trainer I ever used was my brother Kelly. He has a kinesiology degree and was doing personal training full-time and he helped me get more comfortable with various free weights.

Last year after reaching a plateau and getting bored with my workouts I began using a personal training at my gym. I spent three months with Steve as he showed me some different exercises that freshened up my workout and focused on weak points of my routine.

Getting started with a buddy

Looking back now I recall how scary it was for me getting started at the gym. Something that I think would have made it easier for me was to go with a knowledgeable friend at the beginning. I’m not someone who enjoys working out with other people — the gym time is some rare alone time in my day — but having someone who could introduce me to various exercises and proper form when using free weights would have given me a leg up on my journey.

Next post: My workout routine

Finding a gym and making time

[This post is one in a series about my fitness journey. Consider starting at the beginning.]

For the past 18 years I’ve worked out at the gym closest to my house 5 days a week at around 5:30a in the morning. Why? Because if the gym isn’t convenient I won’t go and consistency is vital for results.

Finding a gym

The first gym I ever joined was chosen solely because it was convenient. I was working at IBM in Austin and living in an apartment just 1.5 miles away. There was a 24 Hour Fitness between the two so that’s the one I choose. Having never used a gym before and having no clue how one should judge them, that was the only criteria I had to go by.

Indeed that’s been almost my sole criteria when looking for a gym wherever I’ve moved: it has to be convenient. I don’t care if this is close to my work or close to home, but I know me and if it isn’t convenient I won’t make it there. This isn’t surprising because we humans are lazy and it doesn’t take much friction to find excuses to not go workout.

Another important thing about me is that I hate crowds of people. I doubly hate showing my ignorance in front of people. So fitness-n00b me with zero experience with any of the machines or how to use any of the free weights wanted to be there at the least crowded time. I even remember asking the person who signed me up at the 24 Hour Fitness what was their slowest time of the day. He said it was at when they opened at some ungodly hour of the morning.

Making time

I don’t remember being a morning person growing up, but it’s interesting what motivates people. Wanting to look better but not look like an idiot in front of others while doing it was enough for me as I began working out every morning around 6a before getting to work at 7:30a. That has continued pretty consistently for the past 18 years.

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Back from the gym – August 2018

Every morning I get up around 5a to go work out at the gym, come home, get cleaned up, spend time with Daniel, and go into work. I’ve tried working out after work but I’ve discovered that it’s never convenient — I’m either too brain-dead from the office or I have evening plans that I’d rather do instead.

Waking up at 5a isn’t for everyone, my friends would say that it isn’t for anyone, but finding some time that consistently works for your schedule is paramount to making sure you actually get there day in and day out. At first whatever routine you start is going to be hard. It doesn’t become easy until it becomes a habit integrated into your life. Even then there will be days that it slips by, either because you’re exhausted or you’re sick or you’re depressed or whatever, but it’s important that those are momentary, transient misses.

Note that while I get up at 5a I also go to bed early, around 10p. You can’t make something from nothing — the hour of my day that I spend at the gym has to come at the expense of something else. When I started going to the gym I essentially gave up TV and video games. Carving out an hour of a day every day to get to the gym is going to be the hardest part of an exercise routine for most people.

The biggest advice I have for people wanting to get started working out is to look at how you spend your time every day and figure out where that hour is going to come from. Maybe that’s cutting out an hour of TV, maybe that’s spending an hour less with friends, maybe that’s getting an hour less of sleep per night. Wherever that time comes from in your life, you won’t be successful until you find it and consciously exchange it for workout time.

Next post: Machines, dumbbells, and barbells oh my!

Always a nerd, never a jock

[This post is one in a series about my fitness journey. Consider starting at the beginning.]

I’ve always been a nerd and I will always be a nerd. And growing up a nerd up did not in any way prepare me for my fitness journey. Turns out that you can have muscles even if you don’t start in grade school with the jocks.

Imagine the most quintessential high school nerd stereotype: non-athletic, a loner, avoids all sports, and reads all the time. The only thing I was missing was the taped glasses. In my high school and junior high you had to either be in athletics and play some sport (football, basketball, baseball) or take physical education (PE). Not being a sports person at all, I took PE, taught by coaches who saw those of us in PE as degenerates who couldn’t handle real sports. To cap it all off I grew up in Texas in a very small town where everything revolved around the all-powerful football.

Because of that I’d never stepped foot into any sort of weight room until I went to college. Texas A&M had a brand new and really fantastic student rec center which had volleyball courts, basketball courts, racquetball courts, indoor track, a strength and conditioning room (weight room + cardio equipment), and probably tons more that I never knew about. I remember going into the strength and conditioning room and being overwhelmed with everything in there and not knowing where to start. It didn’t help that I was suffering from some major body-image issues, something that continued until 2016 and still does to some degree. I felt scrawny and ugly compared to all the buff college guys who were working out.

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May 2005

Really it wasn’t until I graduated in 2000 and moved to Austin to work for IBM that I ever entered a gym and didn’t turn around and run. I honestly can’t tell you what motivated me to get a gym membership and start going regularly, but that’s when my fitness journey really started.

Your fitness journey begins where you are, wherever that is. And frankly it’s a journey that lasts a lifetime even as your effort into it over the years ebbs and flows.

Next post: Finding a gym and making time