“Oh Shit.” I forgot to take a breath, closed my eyes, and suddenly began to panic. My mind said, “Push!” but my arms wouldn’t move. I wondered if this was what trainers meant when they warned about their extreme programs that could cause “death by barbell.”
Those are the thoughts that race through your head when you lay trapped beneath your own bench press; the cold iron grazing your throat like an impending guillotine. In my desperation I gasped a plea soaked in embarrassment.
“Help… help…” My hero ran over from some direction. I never grabbed his name, but without proper introduction he grabbed the weight and curled it off my head. I jumped up, relieved and exasperated at my Neo-like reincarnation, and thanked my savior for his amazing feat of strength. He chuckled, made sure I was OK, and left with words I’ll never forget. “Probably didn’t think you needed a spotter, huh?”
I looked down at the bar. Just 10 pounds sat on each side. It was official: My 65-pound bench press found a new way to completely embarrass me. Nearly 15 years later, and after writing six books and serving as editor for Men’s Health and LIVESTRONG.COM, I still remember how my strength was sparked by an undeniable weakness.
Starting From Scratch
You see, the bench press incident (let’s call it BPI because it sounds better) wasn’t an isolated account. At the time, I was just a freshman in college, and I was going to the rec center to train very early in the morning. It wasn’t because of my schedule. I was trying to go when no one would be there. And let me tell you, if you want no distractions at your gym, hit up a college rec center at 5 a.m.. Cemeteries are more alive.
I wanted to be isolated because I was embarrassed. I was weak. I was scrawny. And I had no idea what I was doing. I even knew a girl that could shoulder press about twice as much as I could, so I had to schedule around when she was there. Then again, struggling in the gym was nothing new to me. Growing up I was overweight. And I’m not talking about little-boy-that-can’t-shed-his-baby-weight. I was fat. I was a constant target of jokes in junior high because boys that saw me in the locker room were convinced I had some of the biggest breasts in school. At my Bar Mitzvah, I needed some special tailoring because apparently they didn’t make dress pants for young men of my (short) height and extreme girth. I blamed it on genetics. And maybe that was part of it. But my late-night brownie and cookie habits didn’t help either.
In high school I suffered a comedy of injuries. I broke my back. I suffered concussions. I tore a muscle in my elbow. I broke my back—again. Every injury was a roadblock. A hurdle. A reason to quit, give up, and decide that fitness wasn’t for me. I loved playing sports and being active, but I never felt like I had the opportunity to show and prove what I could do.
I had a drive to become something better. But I had strong doubts if whom I wanted to be actually lived within me, or could even be fulfilled. I wanted to quit fitness, but there’s really no escape. It’s like the mob in that way. Some of us just choose to make it a more prominent part of our lives, while others either ignore the value or never cease to grasp that fitness—and health—can be an enjoyable, invigorating, and stress-free (as well as stress-busting) experience.
Ultimately that’s what kept bringing me back. I felt that I had more to give, and more that I could achieve. Only I had yet to figured out how to release my potential and be happier with me.
A Lesson in Failure
I’d love to pretend that after BPI, I rediscovered the gym, found my Mr. Miyagi, and everything instantly became better. But that would do an injustice to human nature and real life. Life doesn’t happen in montages. (Although it would be awesome if it did.) Looking back at my approach to fitness, I’ve probably made more mistakes than every person I’ve ever met—combined. I lifted weights without instruction and never took time to be coached. I pushed through injuries, which only caused more injuries. I avoided all dietary fats. And then I avoided all carbs. To top it off, I ate hundreds… and hundreds… and hundreds of grams of protein. And I made several girlfriends suffer through the “ass of fire years.” (My sincerest apologies.)
I felt supplements were evil and took none. And then I tried every (legal) supplement in an attempt to become bigger and leaner. I bulked. I cut. I ran. I swam. I did yoga. And I lifted weights—big weights (eventually) and small weights. I did high reps, low reps, timed reps, Tabatas, and Tae-Bo. I’ve tried every type of HIIT training, low-intensity cardio, and kettlebell workouts imaginable. I’ve tried abs machines, tested crazy cleanses, and had a shake or two of the Shake Weight. I even used pink dumbbells one time to impress a girl.
I didn’t worry about how much weight I lost or strength I gained; instead, I focused on learning what techniques worked.
To no one’s surprise, it didn’t work. But I never stopped working at it. And then one day I tried to do something different and learn from other areas in which I was actually successful. I was always a good student, and part of the reason for my success is that I never focused on grades. Instead of stressing about goals, I looked at the process. I didn’t worry about how much weight I lost or strength I gained; instead, I focused on learning what techniques worked. And I spent my time learning how to exercise correctly and improve movements.
By shifting my focus to different goals and removing the stress of the mirror, I discovered a philosophy that changed my life, shaped my career, and allowed me to transform my body. I am a model of failure, and that is why I have succeeded. I never quit. And I never stopped learning or worrying about how long it took to make changes. I measured myself by different metrics of progress. Did I learn something new? Did I set a new goal? Did I try a new exercise, eat a healthier food, or ask a new question about something I didn’t know? Most importantly, I discovered every life is worth living the way you want. But no life can be lived without a concentrated effort to include healthy behaviors as part of your lifestyle.
A Guide to Success
I’m asked all the time about my favorite piece of advice. So here it is: Your health isn’t limited to a gym, a diet, or the image you see in the mirror. Your health is what you make of it. The real distinction between healthy and unhealthy is giving a damn about your body; and making sure you do something—heck, anything—consistently so that you can live a long, active life, take care of yourself, and take care of others in this world.
I’m a big believer in goals, good behaviors, and in sharing options that are sustainable. What frustrates me more than anything is that we’ve gotten away from the real goal; we must find smarter ways to make exercise and healthier eating a seamless part of everyone’s life. Notice I didn’t say lifting weights or cardio, recommend a certain diet, or even prescribe flawless healthy eating. Do I have opinions on my favorites strategies? Of course I do. But I refuse to be dogmatic and insist there’s only one right way. That approach is a recipe for failure.
Only a very small group of people inherently loves all healthy behaviors. And I’ll be honest—I’ve become one of those people. Feed me Brussels sprouts and chicken all day, and I’ll walk around with a bigger grin than the Enzyte guy. But that’s not normal. We need to do a better job of redefining all the different faces of health. I believe that dessert can be part of a healthy eating plan. Or that walking can be a perfectly suitable form of exercise. If these are the behaviors that you enjoy, then you can—and should—find a way to make them part of your life. Don’t fit your square life into a circle hole of someone else’s definition of fitness.
My journey has created a simple goal: To help identify the best diets, types of exercises and workouts, and various strategies that you can apply to your life to be more fit, feel better, and live longer. And if those options also help you build more muscle, lose your belly, deadlift 400 pounds, or shed the baby weight, then great. Those are extra bonuses. Your job is to find out what options exist. Healthy living is a buffet. And while there’s definitely some bad Szechuan chicken lurking (yeah, that’s my metaphor for bad info), there are too many good options to walk away without easily being satisfied and living a healthy life. Therein lies the bigger message: There’s no reason for you to be stressed or feel that a better body, a better mindset, or a better life isn’t for you.
Sites like Greatist make the process of finding information easier. Online programs like Precision Nutrition make it easier to get great online coaching that can transform your body. Communities and apps like Fitocracy make fitness more fun than ever. I encourage you to explore the numerous options that exist. Exercise the way you want, whether it’s in the gym, on the field, or in your home. Eat healthier foods most of the time, and—if you want—indulge in some not so healthy foods. You don’t have to be staring down the chokehold of a 65-pound barbell to have this realization.
If my journey has shown me anything, it’s that the signs are there every day. No matter if it’s Men’s Health, LIVESTRONG.COM, or my brand, Born Fitness, I’ve seen some amazing changes from some incredible people. And most of the time, the individuals thank me for showing them the way. My response: Don’t thank me. Thank you. Thank you for having the courage to pursue what lives deep within your soul. To answer the call that can be so intimidating and scary. And to open your eyes and see that you can have the life you want.
Accomplishing your dream is really no different than building a bigger bench press. All it takes is a deep breath, a clear plan and patience, and a desire to never stop trying.
This post was written by Adam Bornstein, founder of Born Fitness and author of Man 2.0: Engineering the Alpha. To work with Adam on online fitness and diet programs, you can apply for his coaching program. The views expressed herein are his and his alone.
Originally posted January 2014. Updated October 2015.