I Have to Tell People I'm a Bodybuilder and When I Do They Laugh
Someone has to be the world's worst at an endeavour, with this one, it happens to be me
The following story isn't about bodybuilding success or some kind of before and after tale of personal triumph. It's a confession, an embarrassing admission of repeated failure, dissected here for catharsis. It is also the timeless love-hate saga we all have with our bodies, with exercise, with ourselves.
Herein lies my shameful confession: I am the world’s worst bodybuilder. Someone has to be and as you'll read, it's undoubtedly me.
It's all Rocky Balboa's fault
I work out. A lot. Not that you could tell by looking at me. I am what they call a "hard-gainer" – gym-speak for someone who struggles to put on muscle mass more than the average Joe.
This sounds like excuses but a quick check of my stats says it all: I'm just under 5'10" and currently 145lb – still heavier than my natural (non-lifting) weight of ten stone on the nose.
I'm one of those annoying people who loses weight when they stop visiting the gym rather than gains it. Sure, curries and beer can push the scales up but to get this tedious lament over with, I'm small-framed with skinny limbs and my tiny wrists and ankles have been subject to public mockery since forever.
I was always aware of my small stature but for years laboured under the misapprehension I'd grow up to be like my manual labourer father, a huge man with tree-trunk arms and a wide, sprawling back. As it turns out, at 42, I'm still waiting to fill out, looking more like my mum with a beard than any resemblance to a burly man. I'm lacking in burly. On the burly scale I'm Macaulay Culkin rather than Vin Diesel.
From 10-years-old, influenced by the Rocky movies, I played around with dumbbells at home. I didn't know what I was doing, some biceps curls here, some lateral raises there, some push-ups added in for good measure, but I never saw any results; the dumbbells were too light (they were pink and my sister used them for aerobics), I worked out too infrequently and I didn't even understand the idea of eating more to grow muscle.
Still, this was all a sideshow, I was yet to discover the real problem standing in between me and gains: my genetics.
As it turns out, putting on muscle was going to be harder than nailing jelly to the wall using a jelly nail and an even jellier hammer.
The goal wasn't really to look like Rocky, my real motivator was simply to be the same shape and size as the other boys at school – I was skinny in a way that made skinny kids look like beefcakes that ate only beefcakes.
I also wanted to stop people – mainly girls – from laughing at me every time I had to wear shorts (I can still wrap my fingers around my ankles and have them meet on the other side, can you?)
Anyway stop fiddling with your ankle and keep reading...
Throughout my teens I continued with ineffectual home workouts and lumbered through my social life by hiding my physique under baggy clothes and multiple layers. God bless '90s fashion.
At 23, after university, I decided enough was enough and to give the whole bodybuilding thing a proper shot. Why couldn't I be a muscular man? I mean, how hard can it be? Luckily I didn't know what I didn't know. Which was, as it turns out, everything.
Joining a gym and all that real-world stuff
I got drunk before I signed up to the gym, I needed the Dutch courage just to walk through the doors and put pen to paper. I felt like a boy entering a man's world.
This was the start of a new life, no more will girls pull faces when they put their hand on my thigh at parties (thanks for the memories, attractive-but-devastatingly-cruel-girl). I was all in. The idea of quitting didn't even enter my mind.
Months passed and I fell into a routine. I quickly went from terrified gym newbie to confident gym-rat (the affectionate name given to those that frequent the gym with obsessive regularity), though it would still take another year before I dared wear a t-shirt as I worked out. When I began, I was still layered up to hide my meagre physique.
The year was 2002, the internet was still in its infancy and I got most of my workout information from magazines. If you care, here's the technical bit:
I did body splits – or "bro-splits" as they're known. I had a leg-day, a chest-and-tris day and back-and-bis day. After a year I switched it up to a leg-day, an arms-and-shoulders day and then a chest-back superset as I read this is what Arnold did to pack on mass before Mr Olympia. (Side note: no one uses Arnold's last name in gym circles).
I also took nutrition seriously. I ate loads; a protein-rich breakfast, two lunches and two meals in the evening. It was easy as my appetite was through the roof. At times I even set an alarm to eat at night, putting leftovers on my bedside table ready for 3 am consumption.
Here were the results:
After 24 months I'd gone from 142lb to 150lb. Yes, that's it. For all my efforts in two years, I gained a little over half a stone.
A big problem was drinking. Oh, so much drinking. Booze ruins gains. It steals them away like a thief in the night before they even appear. Drink is the ultimate catabolic shake. After a year of lifting and I still got the usual comments; the receptionist at work told me I should "work out a bit" and my well-meaning Grandma said I should bulk up to get a nice girlfriend.
Oddly my family had no interest in my new hobby. My mother told me to stop as she didn't want me to hurt myself and the one time I suggested to my father he buys some weights to help him stay in shape, he looked at me as if I'd said he should buy a wig and call himself Margaret.
As James Clear says, ensure your environment matches your goals. Mine certainly didn't.
An old university friend joined me in the gym. It felt great to share it with someone like-minded. Though he was naturally stocky and gained muscle in the blink of an eye. Once, we walked into the local shop together and the owner said to him "Wow, you've got bigger, are you working out?" whilst I disappeared into the floor, unnoticed. More embarrassment.
Despite my best efforts, I was getting nowhere.
In an attempt to shake things up, I joined a dedicated bodybuilding gym, a basement dive full of free weights and music blasting out through cheap speakers. It was the real deal in terms of no-frills weight training – even the treadmills were hidden upstairs by the reception. No one used them.
I was the smallest person there but by that point, I was over the intimidation. I knew my workout plans, I knew what I was doing and despite looks to the contrary, it was a calm and friendly atmosphere. Here's something people don't realise: huge, scary-looking thick-necks go to the gym to embrace the sport of bodybuilding and focus; it's the sketchy groups of something-to-prove teens hanging around the bench press in the local leisure centre that are the real nuisance.
So I ploughed on in my new lifting paradise. I upped my supplements game to including creatine, a proven strength and recovery accelerator that also helps retain water in the muscles to increase visual size. I edged just over eleven stone, about 155lb. A personal hallmark.
My gains were still not in line with what should be expected of a normal lifter, but genetics and boozing were playing hard and fast against me.
By 25, my arms were bigger, my legs were no longer skeletal (take that, attractive-girl-at-party), clothes fitted well and my confidence went through the roof. This was truly something to be proud of. I did this.
Unfortunately, my drinking never stopped. I hit it hard. I'd do an hour chest workout, pushing myself to my physical limits, and then go on the booze until the early hours. My body was overwhelmed, having to heal torn muscle fibres while processing huge quantities of alcohol I'd consumed in dingy Camden nightclubs. It was too much of a burden.
The inevitable outcome was total physical exhaustion. Something had to give. And it did.
Here's the bit where it all went to sh*t
I got tonsillitis, regularly. I looked pale and ill. I got an abscess on my tonsils (a quinsy) and spent a week in the hospital. My gums inflamed, irritating my wisdom teeth. I had fevers. I had a tonsillectomy and my wisdom teeth were removed in quick succession, then I had a second throat operation to fix the first that was botched. During this time I was on a constant stream of intravenous antibiotics.
My meagre gains vanished overnight.
Then the infection in my throat caused an inflammation in the lining around the heart. I had chest pain and frequent palpitations. I developed Glandular Fever and antibiotic poisoning which manifested as candidiasis, more palpitations and leaky-gut syndrome. I ached everywhere and was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. My GP suggested I had a neuropathic condition, he called "Post Viral Fatigue Syndrome".
Basically, I was fucked (technical term, of course).
It took years to get back to feeling like regular day to day living was not a struggle. I went on restrictive diets, I abstained from all alcohol. I became incredibly thin. All the effort I had put in at the gym amounted to nought.
In more bitter moments, I felt the universe had personally intervened to ensure I stayed skinny as if it were my destiny. My clothes bagged and I began layering up once more. Everyone commented on my weight like I was giving out prizes for observational skills.
I wasn't in a good place for a few difficult years.
Bouncing back like some sort of celebrity autobiography
I began to recover but lifestyle changes didn't come without struggle. It was particularly difficult when well-meaning acquaintances suggested it was "all in my head".
But such is the way of the world and to be fair, others were supportive. I started to stretch and tentatively do light exercise at home. I had a physiotherapist fix my shoulder and trap pain that had prevented me from doing even simple push-ups.
Still, after years of working out, I was skinner than ever. I bounced around the 140lb mark but felt a lot healthier. I took nothing for granted.
For 8 years this was my new normal; some drinking when my body permitted, some light exercise and the general acceptance that bodybuilding wasn't for me.
My bodybuilding dreams were dead. Sorry, Arnie. Sorry, Rocky. Don't blame me, I have a litany of great excuses. Do you want to see a list?
Don't call it a comeback, I never went away (I did)
I rejoining the gym in my early 30s and I told myself it's a marathon, not a sprint, I'd take the gains where I could find them. When injury inevitably reared its head, I worked around the problem rather than falling into a gloom about what it stopped me from doing.
Eat my new, positive, can-do attitude.
A year of grafting later I was back to 150lb. Muscle memory does exist.
From there, I have worked out as consistently as my health allows. It's sporadic progress with a few hospital visits along the way, and a month's break from training would see me lose half a stone. If I told the nurses I lifted weights (they'd ask about lifestyle and exercise) they'd give me that same look I've seen most of my life. The sort of "whose leg are you pulling?" look.
I accept this is my lot. Bodybuilding is full of challenges and these are mine. I don't expect other people to understand. It's not their duty to listen to my excuses. Over the years, as cliché as it sounds, I learned simply to not give up.
Today, I still don't look like I lift, at least when I wear clothes, which is most of the time. There's laws about it and everything.
At best, I just look normal, which is some sort of victory in itself. When I talk about the gym someone will always say "But you don't work out" as if it's a cast-iron fact, like the sky is blue or Jeffrey Epstein didn't kill himself.
I don't blame anyone's scepticism, I don't look like a bodybuilder. To even apply that word to me seems laughable, though it is what I try to do.
Mostly, I've learned to stop mentioning it because it's embarrassing to see the confusion and disbelief on people's faces. But lifting weights has been a constant interest in my life. I probably know more about it than anything else. In fact, I love bodybuilding as much as I'm bad it at, which is a fucking lot. I have no regrets for trying.
Sure, I might just be the worst bodybuilder in the world, but if you think about it, that's something.
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