It was 2009, and I was two months into my first year of university. Aside from drinking alcohol and partying a little too much, I decided I was going to start weightlifting with my buddies. The gym membership was practically free, so it made sense to sign up. I had always been into fitness since I was a teenager—it kind of became my identity, to be honest—so I found some gym buddies, and we set out to become the “biggest” guys on campus. We thought size made us better-looking and more manly. Little did I know that would be the start of several long years of training the wrong way, which ironically, would put my health and identity at risk.

Like most 19-year-olds, we thought we knew it all. Our strategy was to eat everything in abundance and lift heavy weights to test our strength and compete with one other. Now don’t get me wrong; we got stronger, and we did have some kind of routine (leg day, chest day, back day, shoulders and arms day), but I’d be lying if I said we were following a well thought-out program. We’d go to the gym at the same time (8 p.m.) and stay until it closed at 10 p.m., five days a week—that’s 10 hours, nearly a part-time job! But that was our thing, and we made a name for ourselves on campus: The Gym Boys.

We knew absolutely nothing about nutrition. I mean, our idols were bodybuilders like Ronnie Coleman and Jay Cutler. These dudes probably weighed more than 300 pounds and had bulging, rippling muscles, but they couldn’t run a mile if their lives depended on it. Since we wanted to be that big, we decided that we would—no exaggeration—eat 10 eggs, two pounds of chicken breast, two pounds of potatoes, and a handful of broccoli… a day. Yikes!

As you can imagine, we accomplished our goal. I got pretty big by my second year of university and stayed that way until I graduated by sticking with the same diet and training regimen.

WTF Is Bulking?

The whole time, we thought that to get bigger, we just needed to “bulk.” So what exactly is bulking? The main objective is to gain as much weight and muscle mass as possible. Being “ripped” or “shredded” is not the goal; rather, gaining size and strength is. Bodybuilders usually do this for six to eight months a year and then begin the “cutting” phase. This is when you hope all the weight gained is actually muscle. You start to reduce body fat composition through hours and hours of slow, exhaustive cardio until all that remains is muscle.

The problem with bulking is that, for one, it’s for bodybuilders. They don’t necessarily do things for health purposes; they’re focused purely on aesthetics. Plus, it’s important to note that the practice of cutting is not sustainable. That’s why bodybuilders only cut weight for a short period of time around competition season. The bulking is the easy part.

The Downside of Bulking Up

So I was “bulked up,” but actually pretty unhealthy. My clothes didn’t fit properly, I couldn’t run far, and I would get breathless very quickly. Most importantly, I just didn’t feel good. I had spent so long trying to get as big as possible, but for what?

Lifting weights became a huge part of my life, to the point where I thought that was all I had to offer the world. Being the big guy became my identity. The comments and the stares became the norm, and subconsciously, I thought if I ever lost my size, I’d become insignificant. As a Gym Boy, the worst thing you could hear is, “Wow you’ve lost weight. What happened?”

That being said, I knew something wasn’t right. Overeating had ruined my appetite, and I had actually started to dislike certain foods because my meals became repetitive and dry. I would eat every two to three hours, and it always felt like I was eating for two.

The Healthier Alternative

The turning point for me came when I kept ripping through shirts, trousers, and suits at work. It sounds ridiculous, but I was literally busting out of my clothes. Hulking my wardrobe was not nearly as badass as it seems in the movies; it was downright expensive (as was buying all that food)! I had to buy new shirts, jeans, and jackets every three months. Something had to change.

So I buckled down, and after reading a ton of books and reliable information on nutrition, I started to adjust my lifestyle. I made a conscious effort to cook dishes that were nutritionally balanced. I started eating more vegetables. I’d snack when I needed it and made sure I ate fruit every day. I made smart food swaps like cooking with coconut oil instead of vegetable oil and cutting out soda to drink water. I stopped counting calories too, because I wanted to do something that I could do forever and counting calories wasn’t it.

When it came to the gym, I found that training in the morning worked best for me and that actually lifting lighter weights was better too. I used to get joint and chest pains when lifting super-heavy weights, which—while I’m no doctor—couldn’t have been good for my health. So I started training my muscles instead of my ego. I reduced the weight and started doing more reps and sets. I increased the intensity by shortening my rest periods. I was actually building better-quality muscle over time.

Things don’t change overnight. It took about six months (and a lot of discipline!) until I started to see noticable improvements in my body. But eventually, I started to slim down while still maintaining muscle. I no longer felt awkwardly big or lethargic. I was healthier, happier, and a lot more confident.

I found that the right nutrition and training program got me the body I wanted and could maintain for the long haul. More importantly, as my body started to change, so did my relationship with myself and my understanding of what makes a man “manly.” To think you’re more manly because you’re big is really stupid. Being manly is an attitude; it’s a personality. In fact, it has nothing to do with your physical appearance—you can be the smallest guy in the room—it’s the way you carry yourself and treat others.

As my body started to change, so did my relationship with myself and my understanding of what makes a man ‘manly.’

I’ve since come to realize I was blindly following and comparing myself to bodybuilders, but—well, I’m not one. I’m a normal guy who just wanted to be healthier and get in better shape. Yeah, I wanted a set of abs (who doesn’t?), but really, my health and the way I perceive myself are what matters. It turns out, I have a lot more to offer this world than just size after all.