Advice To My 18-Year-Old Self | Gymtalk

Advice To My 18-Year-Old Self

On January 1st of this year I turned 30.

As well as ushering in a malaise of cynicism and despair, crippling hangovers, an aversion to doing anything other than drinking tea in my pyjamas on a Friday night, and the weary acceptance that we will all soon die in the incendiary light of a nuclear explosion, I’ve found myself in a reflective mood.

One of the constants in my life has always been been sport and fitness, and while I have by no means set the world alight with feats of strength and athleticism, I’ve certainly learned a great deal, especially in regard to lifting weights, which has been something I’ve pursued on and off for most of the last decade.

In my late teens and early twenties I was your typical bicep-curling, six-pack striving, non-squatting, skinny novice, who had no sodding clue what he was doing.

Below are some pictures which perfectly encapsulate this point in time – a period where I was seemingly in training to become ‘Britain’s Biggest Tosser’.

henry croft

These were posted to Facebook and inundated (justifiably) with responses such as “sort your life out”, “bender”, “you look like a post-op Clare Balding who has just discovered protein shakes”.

In my defence, topless photos are permissible as youthful vanity, whereas having a photo of a car as your profile pic will always make you a cunt.

Over the next 10 years, by trial and error (mostly error) I figured out what worked and what didn’t when it came to muscle and strength development.

I reckoned that some of this accumulated knowledge might be of use to someone out there, so here it is…

Eat more

If I could only dish out one piece of advice to my 18-year-old self, it would be this.

If you want to get bigger and stronger, eat as much you can.

When I first started out, I believed the pump I was getting in the gym was the sole driver of muscle growth.

A key distinction, which took me so many years to grasp, is that whereas muscles are placed under the stress by lifting weights, actual growth is facilitated by adequate diet (and rest).

And adequate diet, in the context of getting big and strong, means consistently putting yourself in a caloric surplus with good quality food.

It doesn’t mean chugging down a protein shake during the 45 minutes post-workout anabolic window and then scarcely eating or grazing on Doritos and cocktail sausages for the rest of the day (true story).

If you’re serious about making progress, you should be eating at least four meals per day which comprise good protein sources (meat, fish, eggs) with some decent carbs (rice, potatoes) and huge mounds of fruit and vegetables.

To drive muscle growth, protein intake should be around one gram per pound of bodyweight per day and your daily caloric intake should fall between 3,500 and 6,000 calories.

Don’t worry about meticulous calorie counting with apps like MyFitnessPal, nobody’s got time for that, just get it all in, eat as much you can.

Take your diet as serious as your workouts, and you’ll be on the right track.

To grease the wheels, old-school strength and bodybuilding coaches – including Mark Rippetoe – recommend, with decades of experience behind them, that ectomorphs consume a gallon (8 pints) of whole milk every day (GOMAD) while starting out, adding in pints with meals and at regular intervals during the day.

To novices this might seem like an awful lot of food, but if you want to disrupt homeostasis and force muscle growth, eating everything that isn’t nailed down is as important – actually more important – than lifting heavy weights.

If you’re anything like I was at 18, you’re probably thinking that all this food is going to destroy you hard-earned six pack.

And you’d be right.

But here’s the truth, which you probably don’t want to hear:

No-one, apart from you, gives a lubricated fuck about your low body fat and six pack abs.

In a t-shirt you look just like any other average guy who doesn’t lift.

Narcissism aside, do you really think women are going to find your skinny frame more attractive than a guy with wide shoulders and powerful legs who could hammer throw you over a two story building without breaking sweat?

Chasing aesthetics is not going to get you strong and it’s not going to get you laid.

Pick up a fucking fork.

Focus on getting strong

If you want to get big (naturally) you need to get strong.

Bigger muscles are a side-effect of getting stronger, and by focusing on strength training (with adequate diet and rest) everything else will fall into place.

I may be paraphrasing here, but I’m pretty sure it was Ghandi who once said, “If you’re not lifting heavy fucking weights, what’s the fucking point?”

squat

For a novice, the most efficient way to get strong is with linear progression on the main compound lifts (squat, deadlift, overhead press, bench press).

At this stage in your training, your routine should NOT incorporate any of the following:

  • ‘Hypertophy’ rep ranges (the typical 3 x 8-12 you see in bodybuilding routines)
  • ‘Bro splits’ (‘arm day’, ‘ankle day’, ‘spleen day’)
  • Time under tension
  • Negative reps
  • Mind-muscle connection
  • Resistance machines
  • Isolation exercises
  • Supersets/dropsets
  • HIIT/excessive cardio

If you’re just starting out and your lifting regimen draws on any of these, you’re not just wasting your time but hindering progress as well.

Yes, you’ll see no doubt see some initial gains from some of this bodybuilding guff, but this will be down to the well-documented ‘novice effect’, whereby any weightlifting work will disrupt homeostatis.

Standing on one leg while juggling and having your rectum vacuumed by a chimpanzee will give you muscle gains up to a point.

Bottom line, if your routine does not revolve around consistently adding weight to the bar on the big lifts, five years down the line you’ll be no stronger and look just the same.

“But this study… blah blah… hypertrophy… blah blah… if you’ve read the literature, it actually proves… blah blah… and this guy on YouTube said…”

For fuck’s sake, who do you think is going to end up with bigger muscles, someone who has steadily built their 5RM bench press to 130kg or someone who can bench 3 x 10 with 50kg using a reverse grip on a bosu ball with 20 seconds rest betweens sets?

Use some common sense, cum swamp.

Master the main compound lifts

Rather than mastering the squat, deadlift, bench and press as a novice, I, like many others, spent far too much time on unnecessary shite.

After listening to unsolicited advice from the biggest guy at Dunstable leisure centre gym (imagine a shaved Splinter from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles after 10 years of nonstop bicep curls and multiple ASBOs) and reading every issue of Muscle & Fitness magazine, I became an ardent disciple of the school of muscle confusion.

muscle confusion fail

“Your muscles won’t grow if you keep hitting them with the same exercises every week” was what my new coach would tell me every time I saw him (usually in Asda car park where he would walk around in a high-vis jacket – I later found out he didn’t even work there).

Despite the fact his advice typically resembled the maniacal musings of someone who hasn’t left a fruit machine for 7 hours (politicians are all shapeshifting lizards, the best way to finger a girl, how he once wired a sex doll up to the mains, etc etc), I believed him.

I was also determined to try all those useless routines in muscle magazines: “8 Week Bicep Building Bonanza”, “Power Up Your Pec To Pussy Ratio”, “The Secret Kryptonian Muscle Building Secret Superman Uses To Bend Iron Bars”, “How I Spent 10 Years In A High-Security Sex Dungeon But Still Maintained My Muscular Chest”.

There was only one way I was getting massive and that was by constantly attacking my muscles from different angles and confusing the merry shit out of them.

I would constantly rotate exercises, routines and rep ranges to stop my muscles getting used the stress I was putting them through, and I would smirk at the rugby players who would come in and spend 45 minutes squatting with heavy weights three times a week.

Idiots, if only they knew…

I must have tried 10 different variations of the bicep curl, high rep prone legs curls, one leg bosu ball squats, reverse-close-grip-paused incline bench presses, Arnold press standing on one leg.

There was not a proper squat or deadlift in site.

And I got nowhere.

Even when I did figure out where I was going wrong, the compound lifts that started to find their way into my workout were done with terrible form.

If I’d only got proper instruction on how to squat, deadlift, bench and press when I started out, and spent the following years perfecting my technique and persevering when things got tough rather than just switching up my programme again, I would have prevented years of wasted gains.

Increasing volume, intensity and frequency on the main lifts are the only effective stressors for long-term increases in strength and muscle size.

Constantly varying exercises is not an effective training stress.

Train like a beginner, not Arnold Schwarzenegger

One of the first bodybuilding books I owned was The New Encyclopaedia of Modern Bodybuilding by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

I remember the excitement I felt flicking through these pages for the first time (this is it! this is like Moses coming down from Mount Sinai!) and jotting down what was to be my new, devastatingly effective training routine.

Following Arnold’s secret My Olmypia training principles was going to transform me from a skinny weakling who bore a passing resemblance to the bully from Karate Kid to an irresistible He-Man with a sex life so extreme that it would make the world’s most penetrated porn star throw up in disgust.

If only.

What I failed to appreciate at the time was that Arnold was a genetic freak who had been training for decades and used powerful anabolic steroids.

Following his high volume split routines to the letter caused me an awful lot of soreness, a great deal of fatigue and precious little in the way of strength and muscle gain.

I failed to grasp that in order to produce optimal results as a novice I needed to train like a novice, and not a seven-time Mr Olympia.

The training stress was far too high and because I was training almost every day recovery was insufficient to drive adaption.

As a beginner, the most effective way to make progress quickly is with full body workouts, three days a week, focusing on the main compound lifts.

This schedule (at least for 4-9 months) perfectly balances training stress and recovery allowing you to add weight to the bar every session and drive adaption/growth.

This approach to progression is called linear periodisaton.

As a teenager, this is the protocol Arnold followed to establish his foundation, not high-volume splits, and the one he would recommend to novice trainees at his gym and dub The Golden Six.

young arnold schwarzenegger

Similarly, as a beginner Arnold also followed the blueprint laid down by Reg Park, his hero and mentor, who first established the 5×5 protocol now prescribed in popular routines such as Starting Strength and Stronglifts.

Learn the difference between ‘training’ and ‘exercise’

The vast majority of gym goers accomplish precious little other than working up a sweat and making themselves sore the next day.

And this is all well and good if your goal is to maintain your current physique or lose weight by burning calories.

But most people, if they’re being honest, want more than this.

As a teenager I certainly did.

I wanted to be big and strong, I wanted to fill out a t-shirt, I wanted women to look at me and immediately feel the urge to expose their nipples and fanny in my general direction.

But what I was doing in the gym usually amounted to mere ‘exercise’ – not proper training geared to muscle and strength development.

When I was chasing a big, lean, muscular physique, a typical session would be 10 minutes warm up on the cross trainer, 10 minutes foam rolling and stretching, one random compound lift (whatever equipment was free), then maybe 3 sets of 8-12 reps on 3-5 isolation exercises, capped off with a max effort mile on the treadmill and some situps.

Sure, this was a busy routine which burnt a load of calories and got me working up a sweat, but I wasn’t developing strength and size, which was what I really wanted.

I was trying to cover too many bases – get strong, get big biceps, lose bodyfat, have razor abs, improve aerobic fitness (basically Crossfit).

crossfit fail

There was too much cardio, too much unnecessary shit, and not enough time spent under a progressively heavy barbell, which was evident in my lack of real progress on the compound lifts.

If you’re new to the gym, avoid my mistake and follow a long-term training schedule which is wholly geared towards driving improvement on the main lifts, not just a random ‘what shall I do today’ programme that amounts to a whole lot of nothing.

Don’t waste money on supplements

Although the fitness industry would have you believe otherwise, you do not need supplements to get big and strong.

There is nothing in supplements that you cannot get from an adequate diet.

If you are training properly, eating properly and resting properly there is no need to throw your cash away, especially if you’re a beginner.

wold of wall street throw money away gif

People that stack their cupboards high with pills and powders often do not want to hear the simple, hard-to-swallow truth:

The only way you’re getting bigger is through lifting heavy weights, maintaining a caloric surplus and perseverance.

It’s just easier to keep telling yourself that your programme is to blame or you’re not getting enough creatine or that maybe this new study from Japan which shows how eating a boiled rhino’s vagina can enhance cellular function is the answer to your training plateau.

Fact is, there’s no supplement that works as well as doggedly getting your 5RM squat up to 150kg and eating a shit tonne of meat and veg.

The only reason to take supplements is if you honestly struggle to maintain a healthy diet or you’re just too lazy to get yourself organised.

In that case, get yourself some good quality whey protein to make sure you hit a gram of protein per pound of bodyweight every day and take a multivitamin and fish oil as some general nutrition insurance.

But, honestly, how hard is it to have sardines or mackerel a few times a week instead of resorting to pills?

And do you really need a big tub of whey every month when you can get the same amount of protein from whole milk and regular meals?

And while creatine might be one of the most well-studied supplements out there, my personal experience, in over ten years of lifting, is that it delivers very little in the way of performance benefit.

And while I’m not going to fly in the face of science (I trust the research), I believe that most lifters would be better off forgetting about supplements that may or may not enhance performance by 0.05% and instead focus on something more important.

Ultimately, a good night’s sleep and a strong cup of coffee will do more for your squat PR than religiously supplementing 5g creatine every day.

Sleep!

“I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” used to be the adage of someone I knew when I was in my early twenties.

Well, he is dead now.

Turns out all those 3am smack sessions aren’t very good for the heart.

The point being, I guess, is that you should look after yourself, and consistently depriving yourself of sleep is a surefire way to fuck your body up.

And it should go without saying that injecting heroin is probably going to hinder progress on your 5RM deadlift.

If you’re training for any sport, getting at least 8 hours sleep every night is one of the most powerful weapons in your arsenal.

Sleep is a powerful anabolic aid that is absolutely critical to the stress/adaptation model (along with nutrition).

It is where the most potent recovery occurs, and deserves as much attention as your nutrition and training.

sloth sleeping

Don’t treat it as an inconvenience that happens at the end of your day, take it as seriously as mapping out your training schedule.

And by 8 hours, I don’t mean getting into bed at 10:30pm, scrolling on your iPhone for an hour, bashing one out, nipping for a quick wee, finally getting some shuteye around 1am, then waking up at 7 to hit ‘snooze’ every 15 minutes.

Do everything you can to ensure you’re sleeping soundly for a full eight hours – invest in a decent mattress and pillow, get some proper blinds, read a book before dozing off (a great help, apparently).

Signing off

So, there we have it, seven pieces of advice that would have spared my 18-year-old self a lot of wasted time, effort and money.

I apologise to those of you who were expecting a grand reveal of some powerful Soviet muscle building secrets that the Kremlin have been keeping under lock and key since 1920.

Truth is, to see results you don’t need to sacrifice a baby unicorn or commit to ten years of study in a temple in Kathmandu.

For the most part, you just need to rely on common sense, consistency and hard work – i.e. squatting heavy for a decade.

And while a lot of this stuff may elicit a “no shit” response from some – like hearing that Hitler once upended a table and punched someone in the head after losing a game of Risk – most beginners, like my 18-year-old self, fail to see the wood for the trees.

But, to strike a final philosophical point, as most articles of this nature do, if I could go back in time, would I really change everything?

No of c… YES, YES I FUCKING WOULD.

Obviously I would.

By now I would be absolutely bloody MASSIVE.

Over to you

Experienced lifters out there – what advice would you give to your 18-year-old self?

Let me know in the comments section below, I’d love to hear from you!

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  1. Great article as always mate.

  2. Henry,

    What a read!

    Definitely mirrors my own experiences at uni / uni gyms.

    I did the ‘Phil Heath’ 5 day training split for 3 months, separate tricep and bicep days haha.

    I was such numpty.

    Keep the articles coming!

    1. Thanks David.

      Someone who I used to train with at uni once followed a programme where a whole day was devoted to forearms.

      Absolutely ridiculous.

  3. Hey really great article!

    Just loved to read all the thing you wrote here!

    Can you suggest me leg exercises for building more muscles mass in legs?

    1. Squats are the only leg exercise you’ll ever need.

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