10 Things I’ve Learned From A Decade of Lifting Weights

Growth, Stories and Essays

by Ben Kissam

I got the idea for this piece while packing up my gear after a session at the gym when this thought popped into my mind:

Holy crap, it’s been 10 years since I started working out.

I was 15 years old the first time I popped in a P90x video and physically couldn’t put soap on my shoulders for a week after the first round of “Chest and Arms”.

16 when I did my first scaled version of the CrossFit workout “Cindy”, and fell asleep on my bedroom floor right after.

18 when I did a strict pull-up and ran a mile in 5:35.

20 when I finished a 50-mile race in under 10 hours.

21 when I competed in a powerlifting competition- 405 back squat, 225 bench (shut up), 475 deadlift.

23 when I won as a team of 4 at a local Colorado team CrossFit competition. The only thing I’ve ever actually won from lifting weights.

Now I’m 25 with a decade of lifting weights in the rear view. 5 hours a week and 50 weeks out of the year for a decade, so at least 2,500 hours of training.

Nothing has shaped me as a person more than lifting weights. As I thought deeper, I wished I could go back and give advice to that former version of myself prior to his choosing to go down this road.

If I had that opportunity, here’s what I’d tell 15-year old me to consider before starting his fitness journey:

#1. Consistency is king.

Stop over-complicating everything. If I could give you 1 piece of advice, it’s this: show up to the freakingym at least 4 times a week. Squat, deadlift, press, and bench while you’re there. Do explosive movements and Olympic lifts, too.

Practice these fundamental movements with intensity. Do just enough so that you’ll be able to progress and still train tomorrow. Choose a few of the same movements and do them for about 4–6 weeks. Make progress each session. And when the time comes, change things up.

All the nuances you’re worried about won’t matter a decade from now. If you follow those basic guidelines, the rest will take care of itself.

#2. What you do outside of the gym matters more than inside.

For a while, you’ll be able to get away with drinking and binge eating the night before a big workout. But in about 5 years, that luxury will disappear.

There’s a saying that’s going to significantly touch you in a few years: “What happens in the dark will show in the light.”

Apply that to your training now. Remember that all the stuff you do outside of the gym matters as much (or more) than your next training session will.

I’m not going to tell you what you shouldn’t do. We both know that will only motivate you to do it more. Because you’re stubborn and need specifics, here’s what I’d say you should do each day to set you up for success:

  1. Sleep at least 7.5 hours. More if you can swing it.
  2. Eat a pound of vegetables every day.
  3. Eat about 1lb of meat every day. Only use supplements if you’re training to compete in something.
  4. Ask mom to buy you a Nalgene water bottle. Fill it and drain it 4 times a day.

#3. Decide if you’re training to compete or training to live better.

Stop telling yourself that you’re “thinking about” training for the CrossFit Games. You sound like an ass. I’m not saying getting there is impossible for you, but that level of commitment will require you to shift all your priorities toward that one thing.

What you really mean to say is that you’re considering following CrossFit Games programming because you want to look like one of the athletes competing. Say what you mean.

If you’re going to compete in a sport, train for it. Take supplements, train more, and prioritize your life around that goal.

If you aren’t competing, that’s fine. See tip #1 and still train hard. And eat well.

#4. Eat like a king. Make your food taste good.

Sadly, mom won’t be around to meal prep for you forever.

Eating well is how you’ll make progress from your training sessions. And it won’t happen for you if you don’t genuinely enjoy the food you’re eating.

Learn which cuts of meat you like best and where the best deals are so you can buy in bulk. Figure out spices. Don’t buy bottled sauces, make your own.

Sure, Chipotle is easy. Eat there if you’re in a pinch. But when you can help it, make burrito bowls and curries in the comfort of your kitchen.

10 years in I can tell you that you’ll never consistently eat well if you try the bodybuilder diet of grilled chicken, rice and vegetables. You’re not wired that way. Make good food for yourself.

#5. Take your workouts outside.

You’re going to look back and think about how the best training years of your life were the first few where you had no idea what you were doing lifting weights in the Rotatori’s backyard.

The days of makeshift pull-up bars cemented into the backyard and sprints on the biggest hill near the house will be the ones you miss most. You’ll crave the simplicity of those outdoor hodgepodge interval workouts that took 5 minutes to write and 35–40 to grind through.

You didn’t understand programming, but this was when you learned how to push yourself. That was all you needed.

You’re going to get away from training outside for a few years. I don’t really know why. I guess your busy work schedule and having a car will make it easy. But you’ll get to a point where you miss the simplicity of those early days under the sun.

Make it a goal to train outside one day each week. Sprint barefoot on grass. Jump. Throw shit. Optimal fitness isn’t always about percentages or split times. You’ll feel better and train harder. I promise.

#6. Never stop doing sprints.

Hate to tell you my friend, but you’re only going to play organized team sports for 3 more years. Concussions are going to take that from you.

You know how, right now, you do sprints all the time to get ready for lacrosse? When you lose lacrosse, you’ll stop doing them as much. That’s a mistake.

Here’s my advice: never stop doing sprints. 50m, 100m, or 400m, I don’t care. Don’t lose the ability to move your body at full speed through space.

I’m still not sure what it is exactly, but there’s something about doing sprints that makes sense for you. Do them every week.

#7. Absolutely no one cares about your goals.

It’s exciting to talk to people about what you’re working on. I get that. I know how much you care about your goals. You still care just as much.

No one’s going to tell you this. The writing will be on the wall for a long time and you won’t notice it.

No one really cares about your goals. They may feign interest to be polite, but here’s the truth:

The more time you spend talking about your goals, the less likely it is that you are working on making them happen.

The good news is this: you free yourself up to achieve a lot more when you stop trying to tell everyone what you’re doing. Put your head down and do the work while no one’s watching. Let your actions speak for themselves. Commit to making 1% advancements every single day.

You’ll find that the closest thing to magic we have in this world is the compounding effect of those 1% advancements. One day you’ll wake up and realize you’ve transformed into something and someone entirely different.

But only 1% a day means that day is far in the distance.

Stop talking and get to work.

#8. Find a group of brothers or sisters to train with.

You’ll call me a hypocrite because I still don’t always take this advice to heart, but don’t train alone. Find people stronger and more skilled than you and make a point of working out together. Make jokes and throw weights around.

These people will become some of your best friends. You’ll all become stronger and better athletes and human beings because you’re in it together.

A coach of yours will teach you to embrace the suck that comes from training. You’ll have to do that a lot to be successful. It will happen more often and be a heck of a lot more fun if you find others willing to embrace the suck with you.

10 years later, I’d choose the perfect group of people over the perfect program. That’s how much good training partners matter.

#9. Being really fit or strong doesn’t make you a good coach.

The coaching profession isn’t as glamorous as you’re picturing it.

Coaching is the same damn thing over and over again. You’re going to teach the same 4 cues on the back squat so many times that you’ll be able to do it on autopilot. You’ll come up with a quasi-dad joke that you make every time you teach the dumbbell snatch.

This job isn’t what you think it is. You’ll love it all the same, but know that.

Oh, and the people you’ll train? Most of your clients could be your next door neighbors. They’re “regular” people, just like you. It’s never a room full of world-class performers. You’ll have the opportunity to train some great athletes, but they are the exception to this rule.

These people have jobs and families. They don’t care about your macro split or the competition you’re training for. They care about all the stuff that’s relevant in their life and to their goals.

Your job as a coach is this: get to know them, know their goals, and do the best you can to help them get there.

You’re going learn the hard way that coaching has absolutely nothing to do with you.

#10. Training will become the glue that holds your life together.

You’ll identify as the fat kid who lost a bunch of weight for a bit too long. Lifting weights will be the only way you get through a miserable breakup. In ways you can’t comprehend yet, your motivation for showing up to the gym each day will change, a lot.

But so will life. New people will come and old ones will go. You’ll graduate high school and get a college degree. You’ll move across the country by yourself and start your adult life. You’ll travel and experience a lot. Be grateful for what’s on the horizon.

Stop long enough to think about it, and you’ll come to realize this daily ritual of going to the gym is the only constant in your life.

The thing you’ll come to rely on is that 60–90 minute window you spend in the gym each day. Working out will be a highlight of your day when times are good and a form of therapy when times are tough.

But it’s always going to be there.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in 10 years of lifting weights, it’s this:

It’s not really about lifting weights.

The truth is, you’re a mediocre athlete. You’ll probably never squat more than 500lbs, which means roughly 50,000 people in this world are better at this activity than you are. You’ll read hundreds of books and thousands of articles over the next 10 years. I’ll read and train just as much over the next 10, and we’ll still end up being remarkably average.

But lifting weights will change you.

It will help you get healthy and choose your career path.

It will teach you discipline and perseverance.

It will shape your perspective on what’s important to you.

It will constantly humble you as you begin to understand how much you don’t know about it.

It will give you your “edge”. Lifting weights will keep that 15-year old spirit inside of you alive. Somehow, you’ll know this will always be an advantage you have.

Some people my age have already let the kid inside of them die. You won’t.

And at the end of the day, you’ve chosen to be consumed by something that makes you a better person every day. Not many people can say that. You’ll watch as people enlist drugs, alcohol, girlfriends, boyfriends and expensive toys as their vehicle to cope and self-identify.

Your thing will be lifting weights.

Your thing will be staying up past 10pm on a weeknight meal prepping so you have quality food to eat the next day.

Your thing will be hydrating the moment you wake up, already anticipating your training session that’s still 11 hours away.

Your thing will be making sure you get enough sleep while others are out partying.

Your thing will be knowing that lifting weights is what you love, and even though it’s not always easy, you aren’t really sure what life would be like without it.

And you’ll be a better person for it.

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