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Page updated 15-May-2007

If you look around a gym carefully, you see that not everybody's doing the same thing. Bodybuilders and powerlifters lift heavy weights. Boxers jump rope, throw medicine balls, and head to the punching bag. Wrestlers and martial artists hang around the stretching mat doing calisthenics, dips, strange jumping movements, lunges, and crawls. Rugby players and firefighters lift heavy and run. All kinds of people head to the yoga class. Each of these workouts has a different effect, and with practice you can tell fairly easily what a person does by their workout. There are principles behind these differences:

Everyone can grow but your genes determine how you will grow. There are three general body types:

TypeCharacteristicsMetabolismBest at
Mesomorph Muscular, strong, broad shoulders Medium Bodybuilding
Endomorph Prone to fat but also strength,
indistinct abs
Low Bodybuilding, football, rugby
Ectomorph Tall & thin High Endurance sports, soccer

"Indistinct" abs mean they look like a single mass of muscle rather than being "ribbed" (washboard). Most people have a combination of these three types, not just one. I have broad shoulders (mesomorphic) but indistinct abs and am prone to fat (endomorphic).

So choosing a workout requires choosing a goal, and choosing a realistic goal requires understanding your body's genetic strengths and working with them rather than against them.

My goals

When I was a teenager I admired huge bodybuilders. But when I went to a college wrestling match in 2000, I saw that wrestlers are impressively big but not huge, and they really get stuff done on the mat. As I tried freestyle and then submission wrestling and boxing myself, and read about how the Marines train and why, I saw the disconnect between real-world actions and isolation exercises. Taking a guy out is not a single-joint movement. Neither is raising a wall or hoisting yourself over one. I wanted to be like a Marine-bodybuilder or grappler-bodybuilder -- big but not huge, ass-kicking and take-charge. (More examples on my Pics page.) Men are built for hand-to-hand combat -- think starving cavemen -- so it's not surprising we look and perform our best with this kind of training. It's not funny how many wrestlers I've met in their 40s or 50s who look 10-20 years younger than they are, and it's because they still wrestle.

But what really turned me around was when a friend I admire (who looks like Henry Rollins) asked me to box with him. "There's nobody else around my size to practice with." Me, his size? That big buff guy who can knock everyone around the block thinks I would be a good match for him? I realized it was true. We're both 5'11", 200 lb, stocky, Irish American. I had admired him not because he was different but because subconsciously I knew we were similar: this is what my potential was, what I would have been if I'd started lifting and grappling thirty years earlier. I had been seriously shortchanging myself, and most of the guys I'd been intimidated by were smaller than me. This freed me up to see myself as their equal, and to aim higher than I had.

Choosing your goals

Here's what worked for me for choosing goals.

Step 1: What do you really want to be in five years? Or what do you want to accomplish? Don't be bashful, say what would really make you happy. Find three or six people who resemble your goal: friends, movie stars, guys in the gym, pictures, whatever. Set measurable goals if you can: 18-inch arms, run five miles, make people stare, win a medal, perform better at your job, etc.

Step 2: Now, what is it about these people you admire? How did they achieve that? How much time do they spend in the gym? What outside training do they do? What do they eat? Do they have genetic advantages you don't? Do they take steroids? Is there anything about them you dislike or don't want to imitate? My boxer friend has a bunch of tattoos I don't like, and his attitude could use some adjustment. All these questions help separate the person from the characteristic -- it's the characteristic you're really after -- and break the defeatist mindset: "He is a god, I am a worm, I can never achieve that." You are equal to those you admire; they're just more experienced or more disciplined in certain things. You're no doubt more experienced in other things. If you're not willing to do everything they do, you'll have to choose a lesser goal.

Step 4:Now find some people who are genetically similar to you but closer to your goal. That will show you what you're capable of and how you will grow. For instance, I'm similar to Chuck Liddell, so that's how I'll grow. Are you happy about that? A short man can't grow more than an inch taller. A tall thin man has a hard time packing muscle because it's stretched along such long bones. Make a second long-term goal consistent with your genes. This will be your practical goal; the other's for what-if imagining.

Step 5: Now that you have a long-term goal, what can you achieve in six months? That's the short-term goal. Or go shorter if you like: those "Change Your Body in 12 Weeks" programs do work. (What they don't tell you is, any strenuous routine will have measurable effects in twelve weeks, and you'll start seeing changes in three or four.) Choose about measurable goals; e.g., add half an inch, run one minute.

Having friends who are doing what you want to do makes a big difference: they're an example and encouragement. Plus, if they're wrestlers/grapplers they probably eat right and don't smoke or drink because they're always "in training", so they'll want to hang out in place other than bars.

Over time you'll find you've surpassed your initial goals. Take a picture of yourself once a month and compare them side by side over time. The changes are slow enough that you're often the last person to notice them, but they will be obvious in six-month intervals.

Three things to remember if you think you're not big enough:

Trainers and other stuff

Personal trainers cost $30-50 per hour (or $100 if a gym corporation is taking a large percentage), but one with 10+ years' experience in your specific goal area is well worth it. He knows what worked for himself and his previous clients, and his experience can provide an endless supply of nuances and workout variations than somebody who just knows the textbook answers can't match. I've had two trainers. One from 2002-2004 on and off, and one I just started with in 2007. I lucked out with my first trainer because he had even more experience than I thought. I could tell he was a buff bodybuilder who could show me how to lift. But I discovered he'd played football in college so he started me off with a football lifting routine. Later when I got into wrestling he said, "I did that in high school." Boxing: "Sure, I can show you how to punch. And muay thai kicks and a bit of ninja if you're interested." When his buddy opened a jiu-jitsu school, he recommended I try it. Later he put me on the same routines he was doing, providing mutual reinforcement and accountability. Whenever I would point out various guys in the gym I wanted to be like, he'd say, "That'll take a year of hard work" or "You already have that."

My second trainer knew tons about body mechanics and nutrition, had worked in a chiropractor's office and supplement store (which he quit because he thought the ingredients were bullshit), and was studying to be a naturopathic doctor. He was athletic but didn't look like a bodybuilder, but he really knew his stuff, and just three sessions was enough to set me off in a new direction.

If you're afraid to enter a gym because everybody is so much more advanced, consider this. I didn't take a weightlifting class in high school because I was afraid I couldn't even lift the lightest weight and would embarrass myself. I didn't even think about wrestling for the same reason. This attitude lost me fifteen years of progress. Advanced bodybuilders and amateur fighters do not think this way. They don't judge you by what level you're at, they look at your effort and persistence. They started where you did. Most serious bodybuilders are polite and friendly and willing to spot you. Of course there are a few assholes but nobody likes them.

When workouts seem like a drudgery, remember Principal Skinner making Bart Simpson write on the blackboard a hundred times, "This school does not need a 'regime change'." In other words, stick with it. But do change your routine every six weeks or so, and try different kinds of workouts. [other blackboard quotes]

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Sluggo is Mike Orr, a helluva friendly guy in Seattle. Email me if you have feedback.