Force of Habit

So much of the work I did – and still do – in taking control of my body involves what seems like a very basic thing… Changing habits. But I’m continually learning that this is one of those things where you do it once, then assume you’ve mastered it until you hit a wall and realize you need to do it again. And again. And again. So it has been with my own habits. Just when I think I’ve mastered “good habits”, I find that I’ve really just mastered the art of telling myself I have good habits.

I went to visit my parents in Florida recently and I had a great time seeing my family and friends from back in Tallahassee. I was having a conversation with my dad over lunch and it came up that I had shot up to 255 lbs this year. For a moment, I was really a Colossus… at least comparatively (my business is set up at a bodybuilder gym so I don’t really notice my size most of the time). Dad asked, “How much bigger are you trying to get!?” So I told him that I want to be 260 and hover at around 10% bodyfat for most of the year, though if I ever get on stage for a competition it’ll have to be closer to 4%. Then dad asked what a lot of my friends who aren’t as familiar with fitness ask me: “why are you doing that? You look good already. Better than you ever have.” Followed, of course, by, “I don’t think you’d look good at 4% bodyfat.”

I said to dad, “Looking good is beside the point. I look good now, yeah. I look ‘normal person’ good, but there’s a difference between looking good, looking fitness professional good, and looking competition ready. When you’re on stage competing, it isn’t about looking ‘good’ per se. It’s about looking like you’ve honed your physique very carefully to the right proportions, the right shape, the right mass, the right leanness. You don’t look ‘good’ on stage: you look like you’ve mastered your physical body. That’s what bodybuilding at a competitive level is… a demonstration of that mastery.”

And in the spirit of being tone-deaf to my own advice, I blurted this out without pausing to reflect on the ramifications for my own behavior.

Fast forward a day and I’m at the gym with my best friend Greg, where we run across another friend of mine, Kenzie, who was preparing for a physique competition. I know a lot of guys who compete, but I’ve known this guy for the longest and I’m always interested in his progress. He’s been training for and/or planning this for a long time. In the midst of chatting with him, Greg asks what he’s been doing to prepare for the show since, at the time, the show was about two weeks out. He said, “Cardio twice a day, weights for 90 minutes. I basically sleep, eat, lift, and work. Don’t drink, don’t party, don’t go out… That’s my life haha.”

It was only then that my earlier conversation with dad resonated with me. The point of being on stage isn’t to look good: it’s to demonstrate your mastery over your own body. Kenzie’s goal was to win the physique competition… and he was serious enough about it to bend all his will toward that end.

I, unfortunately, had not been for most of the year.

The trap at this stage of fitness is, I think, comparing myself to regular old people… or even overweight people. Compared to 90% of the human race, I’m doing pretty good! My habits are much better than they were when I was 310 lbs of fat! And they are… but that doesn’t mean that my habits and my behavior are tailored to reach my goals.

The truth is that my progress has been lackluster for a while. Sure, I’m massive and my bodyfat is decent and I look great. Like dad said, better than I’ve ever looked. And that’s something to be proud of! But that isn’t my goal anymore. Looking good isn’t the aim: competition is the long term aim, and I’d lost sight of that. Or rather, I’d convinced myself that being “better than average” was sufficient to carry me along to my goal. Because of that, I was ok bending the rules on my eating especially. I could go out fairly often if I didn’t eat something too bad. I could hit the bar 2 or 3 times a week as long as I drank Captain and Diet. It didn’t matter too much if I let what should be a “refeed” day spill over into a 36 hour gorge. Right?

The thing is, I still looked pretty good despite all this fudging. My body looks fine. Which is somewhat encouraging given how long I spent being terrified of going off program at all… I’ve apparently reached a stage where I can maintain my physique without much trouble. But it wasn’t getting me to my goals. I was still too fat – not regular guy fat, but fitness professional and bodybuilder fat. And my lazy habits were keeping me there.

So a couple weeks ago I changed that. I decided that I should follow Kenzie’s example: my goal of competing had to be worth the sacrifice. I stopped cheating entirely, exchanging a “cheat day” for a tightly controlled carb refeed. I stopped drinking entirely: I still went to bars and street festivals with my friends, but I refused any alcohol and stuck resolutely to diet coke (painful as it was to refuse free drinks over and over). And I stopped eating out, even “good things”, and began a tight regimen I know for a fact works… because it’s kind of unpleasant to stick to: eggs, tea, protein, tilapia, chicken, and green veggies. Day in and day out.

The result of building new habits (again) was that I saw my body change (again). I dropped 12 lbs pretty rapidly and, lo and behold, my abs came back. It was a pleasant outcome and a rude awakening all at once. “Coasting” is never something I can be content with… not if, as I’ve trained myself to do, I am constantly making new goals. And I can’t rely on old habits to take me to new places. I have to continually reforge them for new situations.

So now my diet is very narrow, very clean, and my habits are focused on my goals. It’s difficult – I miss things like, you know, food tasting good – but it’s worth it. If I have a goal, it has to be.

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