Back in the day, I was a super skinny dude. At 5’9” I weighted a staggering 118 pounds at 17 years of age.
My arms and legs looked like spaghetti noodles! It got to the point where I avoided wearing t-shirts or shorts. I avoided anything like the plague that would show my skinny arms and legs.
I was too embarrassed. It was pretty sad.
I remember this one time in gym class. We all had to weight in for wrestling. I stepped on the scale and the gym teacher called out the number, 118 pounds. I could hear the chuckles and name calling. I was the second skinniest person there, besides my buddy Ron who had a genetic condition that predisposed him to being ultra-thin!
Bullies took extra time out of their bullying schedule to make my life miserable and girls walked by me as if I was invisible.
I remember those days and cringe but you know something, I also chuckle to myself and realize just how far I’ve come. I can recall the weeks and months when it all turned around. I remember the change in my appearance and most of all, the change in the way people looked and treated me. Guys stopped bullying me and girls started to look at me differently (I wasn’t invisible anymore). I went from a 118 pound bean pole to a 200 pound powerhouse in a matter of 3 short years. When I walked down the high school corridors, crowds parted – Teachers even started to accuse me of being on steroids (Which I wasn’t).
By the time I got to university I was a solid 230 pounds.
Here I am as a skinny 16 year old. I was still doing all the stupid programs like the Arnold routines and volume based training.
Here I am after getting the proper coaching and stopping all that volume training nonsense that I was doing (Arnold routines). I think I was 17 or 18 years old here.
And here I am after totally changing my training and diet around after receiving the proper coaching from qualified trainers. I think I was 18 or 19 years of age in this photo (the bullying stopped at this point!).
What happened? How did this all change for me?
First, let’s go over what I did wrong.
When I first started out weight training, I over complicated a very simple process because I was too impatient. I wanted muscles so bad I skipped over the essential steps and principles for building big muscles. Here’s what I did wrong:
• My first mistake was following the routines and programs in the muscle magazines. My buddies and I would try and do Arnold’s routine and perform 25 sets per body part doing set after set of concentration curls and bench press’. This type of volume is simply too much to provide an effective environment for muscle growth. This was a huge waste of time and effort.
• My second mistake was to perform the bench press almost every day. I would try and do one repetition maximums each and every day. Eventually, I got weaker and weaker and finally gave up. Since the bench press involves your shoulders and triceps, those muscles got weaker as well affecting my shoulder and triceps movements. The problem here is that I didn’t provide my muscles enough recuperation time. Muscles need time to recover and build which only happens when you provide the appropriate levels of rest.
My third mistake was thinking that my muscles grew when I was working out in the gym. I would show up to the weight room 6, maybe 7 days out of the week with no rest days. Again, my muscles didn’t have enough time to recover and build. I was basically tearing them down, over and over in a relentless pursuit of attaining bigger and bigger muscles. I couldn’t grasp the concept of rest and recovery and the time it takes to build muscle.
• My fourth mistake was to perform 5 maybe 6 different exercises per muscle group. This is simply way too many exercises. Really, to get the best results, one should be doing half of this (two to three exercises per body part) – Cut out all unnecessary exercises and keep the ones that produce the best results. Once I started using one compound exercise per body part, my muscle responded right away.
• My fifth mistake was to simply staying in the gym way too long. I’d be in there for two hours plus doing these crazy routines. Anything after an hour is pretty much a waste of time and effort (provided you’re working hard enough). There is no reason to stay any longer than one hour in the gym. These days my workouts are brief but intense (About 45 minutes in length and no longer than an hour).
• My sixth mistake was not concentrating on those exercises that provided the most muscle building benefit. I used to do set after set of useless isolation exercises when I should have been putting all my effort into compound movements (IE: Squats). I was under the wrongful impression that my muscles only grew if I worked them directly. I had absolutely no clue about the muscle system dynamics (muscle group systems) as opposed to using muscle singularity.
• Seventh mistake was failing to improve with each passing workout. This is probably the most important lesson here. If you can’t improve with each passing workout, there is something wrong with your routine, method, diet, or rest patterns. The real secret to building muscle is making small improvement with your compound movements over the course of your training cycle. What I failed to understand was that I should have been performing one compound movement per body part and making improvements on those compound movements from workout to workout.
• My eighth mistake was taking each of my exercises to failure on most of my sets. There is a misconception that training to failure is absolutely necessary to build muscle mass. No, it doesn’t if it’s used improperly. Under no circumstances should you be taking your exercises to failure unless it’s on the last repetition of your last work set for a compound movement. Even then, you should be using it sparingly.
• My ninth mistake was not using the proper repetition cycle. Since I was doing 1 repetition maximums on most of my lifts each and every workout, I wasn’t providing the necessary muscle stimulation for muscle growth. Each of us has a magic repetition range that differs from person to person. For me, that range is 12.
• My tenth mistake was ignoring workout progression. Workout progression involves adding progressively more intensity with each passing set. Usually this means adding more weight with each set while reducing the amount of repetitions. I was doing it backwards. I was adding too much weight to each set and not working up to a final “work” set.
• My eleventh mistake was using way too many sets. I used 5 sets per body part and was taking each of those sets to failure. This is simply way too many sets for any one person. I’ve come to realize that my body responds best to 1 main work set per exercise.
• My twelfth mistake was to ignore training cycles . I used to train for weeks on end without using a progressive training cycle that provided an environment for performance improvement. Right from the get go it was balls-to-the-wall training using failure sets, supersets, giant sets and everything else you can think of. The real trick to major muscle growth is to use 12 to 15 week training cycles which allows you to improve with each cycle. This is very, very powerful.
• My thirteenth mistake was cardio overkill – I used to walk at least an hour and a half each day (school), jog and perform stair sprints daily after classes and play hockey twice a week and on the weekends. On top of this, I was training for at least two hours every night for 6 or 7 days. This was way too much cardiovascular activity. I was burning valuable muscle building calories and nutrients on cardio activities when I should have using them on muscle building compound movements.
• My fourteenth mistake was to not get enough rest. I would get home around 10:00 and watch T.V until about 11:00 and pass out. I’d get up at 6:30 and do the whole thing over. My body simply didn’t have the rest it needed to recover.
• My fifteenth mistake was the biggest mistake – I was not eating enough. I was taking in about 1500 calories on a daily basis when I should have been taking in double that (3,000 calories at least). My meals were spaced too far apart at 4 to 5 hours. In short, my body was in a state of catabolism (negative nitrogen balance) as opposed to a growth state (positive nitrogen balance). The only way to build muscle is to ensure your body is in a constant positive nitrogen balance. The only way to do this is to ensure you’re consuming enough quality calories on a consistent basis. I was burning more calories than what I was taking in. In essence, my body was in a constant state of break down when it should have been the opposite, a constant state of building.
• My sixteenth mistake was not making sure my macro nutrient intake was consistent and constant. Some days, I’d take in 80 grams of protein, other days it was 50 grams and others it was a 100 grams. The body prefers to be in a constant state of equilibrium. My body was in a constant state of nutritional confusion so it did the only thing it could, it fed off its own protein (muscle). This explains why my body shrank and got weaker.
• My seventeenth mistake was to not drink enough water. Besides being in a nutritionally deficient state, my body was also dehydrated. In short, my bodies’ muscles weren’t contracting the way they should have been because I didn’t have enough fluids in my body. It was short on water and electrolytes.
• Out of all these mistakes, my biggest one was to follow routines and diets that were meant for other body types. I was using routines meant for professional body builders. I was using routines that have been honed and customized by years of trial and error for someone else’s body type. If I would have used a routine and diet meant for my particular body type, I would have saved a lot of time and effort and I would have seen results a lot sooner.
I admit I was one of the lucky ones. You see, I lived in a small town and we didn’t have a fully equipped gym. I was training at my high school and my buddies garage (cold in the winter!). We had absolutely zero guidance with the only instructions coming from muscle magazines. Honestly, we didn’t know what the hell we were doing.
One day, a new gym opened up across town. I immediately went over with my gym cloths and joined. It was on those faithful two weeks that one of the owners came over to me and simply said, “What you’re doing is nonsense”. He was an enormous man. He was my height but weighed 290 pounds of muscle mass. He pulled me aside and said, “How bad do you want to get super strong and build mounds of muscle mass?” I replied that I wanted it more than anything and I’ll do anything you say. That simple conversation changed my entire life.
He changed my entire weight training and diet schedule. Here’s how I stopped being a skinny guy and I went on to be one of the strongest and well-built dudes in the area.
• I started doing full body workouts twice a week. I only went to the gym twice a week, Mondays and Thursdays.
• I did one compound exercise per body part with absolutely no isolation movements
• Instead of doing 5 work sets, I dropped to doing 1 main work set
• I started to incorporate progressive style training in which I would use 3 “warm up” sets working up to my main work set.
• I never used 70% of my maximum weight leading up to my last work set. In other words, I saved all my energy for the last set of my compound exercise. It was this set that I used all-out effort and intensity.
• Squats became my life and the one exercise that I concentrated on.
• My repetition scheme changed drastically. I actually did a reverse type progression in which I started off with a set of 15 to warm up followed by two or three sets of 6 to 8 repetitions. I used progressive weight with each set but never any more than 70% of my one repetition max. For my last set, I aimed for an all-out set of 12 repetitions.
• I made it my life’s mission to improve from workout to workout on the last set of my compound movements. I did this by trying to do an extra “unassisted” repetition or two on my last work set using the same weight as I did in the previous workout for that same exercise. Instead of needlessly spending my intensity capital on useless sets, I saved it for when it would produce the best results, on the last set of my compound movement.
• My workouts lasted exactly one hour. I stopped living in the gym and spent about two hours per week there.
• I stopped doing cardio sprints after school and cut my cardio in half.
• I doubled my calorie intake. This one move had an immediate effect on my appearance. I went from taking in about 1500 calories per day to about 3,300 calories per day. This immediately put my body in a state of growth and after two weeks, I started to gain weight. I got stronger and my body started to fill out. Read more here.
• I spaced my meals two hours apart. I stuffed my nap sack full of healthy snacks, sandwiches, and milk. I ate every two hours no matter what. My favourite snack was to eat a banana and litre of milk between meals and classes. This schedule ensured my body was getting a constant flow of nutrients – Remember, positive nitrogen balance.
• I paid extra attention to two areas of my day in which my body was super responsive to nutrient uptake. First thing in the morning and immediately after my workout. In essence, I stuff as much quick acting carbohydrates and protein as I could into my body at these times. This allowed me to greatly speed up the recovery process and get my body back to a state of growth.
• I drank a gallon of water per day
• I started using 12 week training cycles with each cycle improving from the last. This allowed me to build on a stronger foundation and on a consistent basis. This is what propelled my body to big time growth. I rested about two to three weeks after each 12 week training cycle.
• I stopped doing one repetition maximums. There is no need for one repetition maximum repetitions unless you want to get injured.
• I stayed with one routine and tweaked it as I went along (using the odd super set or giant set)
• I stopped using programs and systems meant for other body types.
• I made sure I was getting at least 8 to 9 hours of sleep every night.
• I started using special “get big” days in which I gorged myself with healthy nutritious meals.
Once I started using the above noted methods I started noticing major improvements after one month. The major growth contributor was my eating habits. Once I started consuming enough calories to allow my body to grow, I noticed an immediate improvement. My workouts became more energized, and my body seemed to be in a constant “pump” state. This is probably due to the fact that my muscle cells were crammed full of water and nutrients. After two months, my muscles were noticeably fuller and bigger. After four months, I started to look like somebody who was into big time weight training. After a year I started looking like a body builder and somebody you didn’t want to mess with.
I’ll be honest with you – It took a hell of a lot of hard work and discipline. However, the hardest part was de-programming my brain from all the misinformation and crap out there about building muscle. When I think about it, this process isn’t rocket science. If you can manage too:
• Give the body what it needs to grow – An abundance of quality food
• Give the body a strong enough reason to grow – A simple and progressive weight training routine
• Provide the glue that ties #1 and #2 together for fast and effective gain in muscle mass – Rest and recovery
Who knows what would have happened if I didn’t listen to the gym owner on that faithful day. I probably would have fizzled out and became another failure statistic. Today, I’m 46 years of age and I’m still in shape. Those lessons that I’ve learned from my coach and mentor still stick with me today. I still cycle my training and nutrition and I can still get in top shape anytime that I choose. Although I’m not as big or thick as my younger self (I don’t train heavy anymore) I can still hold my own with the younger and stronger dudes in the gym!
We aren’t all so lucky to have a personal trainer. I’ve made this website so all can enjoy and become more physically fit using weight training. However, there is only so much that I can state using this website. I’ve built up a world of knowledge in this area and have trained (and learned from) with seasoned power lifters, body builders, nutritionists and all round gym rats from across Canada in the 28 years I’ve been training. There is only one other way to truly provide you with the information and program you need to truly suceed and that is by creating a complete custom program and coaching solution.
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I hope this article has helped you to avoid the mistakes I’ve made in the past and get you one the road to major muscle growth and to stop being a skinny dude.
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All the best,
Blake has been weight lifting for about 28 years now. He's 45 years of age and started seriously training when he was 18 years old.
Blake is the founder of Building-Muscle101.com, a successful fitness website that has been around for more than 15 years.