Sometimes I struggle with how I feel about my fitness level. I started working out seriously when I was 14, did my first true powerlifting competition when I was 19 (22 years ago), and I have competed in about 50 meets over the last 2 decades. I have now been retired from competitive lifting for 3 years.
When I look back at my fitness with the privilege of hindsight, I was pretty f#@king fit. I typically walked around weighing between 200-210 lbs at about 10-12% bodyfat (I am 5’10”). I deadlifted 700 lbs, benched almost 400 lbs at that weight, and could easily squat over 500 lbs with just a belt. I wasn’t just good at the powerlifts either. At almost any moment and I could drop down and bang out near 100 push-ups at once, or grab a pull-up bar and knock out 30 pull-ups without thinking about it. I was fast too, with a 4.59 40 yd dash, had a pretty good vertical (27”), and kicked ass at almost every exercise in the gym. You name it, I smashed it. Bicep curls, skull crushers, leg press, lunges, abs. I didn’t want anybody in the gym to beat me at anything. I competed in arm wrestling, strong man, rowing competitions, curl competitions. My VO2 max was pretty good (60 or so), but if it was under 2 minutes then I really shined. That is not say I won every single competition I entered or was always the best powerlifter, but when it came to all-around strength based fitness, I was pretty damn good. And that was all accomplished without ever touching any PED’s or the like.
Fast forward to today. I am 41 years old, still pretty young in my mind, and nowhere near as fit or as strong as I used to be. Right now I am 190 lbs sitting at about 15-17% bodyfat. That means I have lost 31 lbs of muscle and gained 11 lbs of fat in the process. Just saying that makes me want to cry. I couldn’t deadlift 600 lbs if there was a gun to my head and I haven’t squatted over 2 plates in several years. I have two pretty shitty knees, thanks to my quads deciding it would be more fun if they were no longer attached to the bone (ironically both injuries occurring outside the gym). Thus I can’t sprint and jump for shit now either.
Compared to the average American walking down the street I am still pretty fit. 190 at 15% body fat isn’t out of shape. I can rep out the 100’s on dumbbell presses no problem, I can still do 80 plus push-ups, 50 dips, or 20 good pull-ups upon request. I recently climbed a tall rope with no leg support and heavy chains wrapped around me which was something I was proud of. My blood pressure is great and the last time I measured my pulse it was 42.
But fitness is relative. We only define what is fit and what is not by comparing one’s ability against another’s. And compared to my previous self I am not that fit. Or put another way, I have been training pretty seriously for 22 years, and I am about as fit as I was on year 2 on that journey. That is a lot of time and a pretty big slide backward.
Now you might say “Quit your damn bitchin’, stop crying like a baby, get off your lazy ass, and start hitting the weights again. You did it once before and you can do it again.” But truth be told I don’t believe I can do it again. I’ve torn both quads, one 7 years ago and one 1 year ago. Not the little partial tears people are always talking about, 100% ruptures as in the patella is down there and the muscle is up here. I ask myself all the time was that because of the squatting, or the heavy leg extensions, or my particular form, or because I am bow legged and flat footed, or simple genetics (my dad suffered the exact same injury and he’s never squatted). Or was it the football, the leg presses, the smith machine squats, the hack squats, or all the lunges I did? Or was it medicine I took or vitamins I was missing? I just don’t know. If I knew for sure I’d be the first one to tell you.
But given those injuries, I don’t believe my knees can take the pounding it would require to bring my squat back up. I tried a bit, and others have suffered similar injuries to me and some have come back. But I felt like if I really pushed them they would just get hurt again. Extra work didn’t make them feel better, it made them feel worse. My shoulders and elbows and lower back nag at me sometimes too. But I don’t want to get bogged down in the minutia because I do have a point to this article. The bottom line for me is that I don’t believe my previous levels of fitness are attainable, and even if they were attainable again for a brief time I believe training to reach that would do more harm than good down the road.
Thus I am forced to make a choice. Do I want to look at myself now and then look back at how I was? Should I feel bitter and pissed about how my fitness level sucks compared to what it used to be? Should I beat myself up, berate myself, have this internal dialogue where I judge everything I do in the gym now with the same voice that drove me to pull 700 lbs? Yesterday in the gym I used 15 lbs on the DB Curl – 15 lbs! and a few years ago I set the American Record in the strict curl. Should I hate myself for that?
Or do I look at myself now and then look forward? I am 41 years old, reasonably fit and (knock on wood) apparently healthy. Where do I want to be 5 years from now? 10 years from now? 20? And what will happen to me as time progresses?
You see this isn’t just a story about me. Certainly, I have my own individual story and the details are unique to me, but this is a story about all of us. As a trainer, I work with all sorts of individuals. I remember one of my wiser clients, she was about 60 at the time, remarked to me once: “You know, looking back at the pictures of myself when I was 20 or 30 I was really something, but of course, I never realized it at the time.”
That thought struck me and it has stayed with me ever since. Do you want that to be you? Is that the way you want to feel about yourself? Most of us have an inner critic, a narrator that gives you feedback about yourself. And for many involved in fitness that narrator can be pretty critical. There are benefits to this – it can help motivate you, drive you, spur you on to improve, to be better. But listening to a continuous stream of discontent, regularly battling with your internal self, it’s not healthy.
And the bottom line is, age comes for all of us. Yes exercise is great for battling off the effects of aging and yes one can be older and still be extremely fit. But if you start young and you reach your peak relatively early in life, as I did, your fitness level, and your looks, are going to decline. Unless you are under 30, 10 years from now you likely won’t be as fit as you are now. 20 years from now you almost for sure won’t be as fit, and 40 years from now there is almost no chance anyone is going to be as fit as they are today. That is going to happen. The degree and the extent of the decline you have some control over, but it is going to happen.
Because that is a certainty, then you have a choice. How are you going to view yourself, now and in the future? Are you going to be dissatisfied now, and then more dissatisfied 10 years from now, and horribly unhappy 20 years from now?
Or are you able to step outside of yourself, to turn off that inner critic (and who declared the voice in your head to be the end all, know all? Oh, that is right, you did), and try to honestly assess and more importantly appreciate where you are now. I am not as fit as I was, and if I could snap my fingers or pay a bunch of money and just go back to my prime I would. But life doesn’t work that way. I am still reasonably fit. I asked my wife about how I should feel about my fitness level right now and she said “Pretty good.” That sounds about right to me. I can go outside and play with my boys, take the dog for a hike, ride a bike, go swimming, go fishing. There are a lot of people in the world that have it worse than me.
Do you want to be old and look back, only to realize you didn’t appreciate what you had? Or do you want to look forward, to understand what is coming, and still be grateful you have the opportunity to experience it? The choice is up to you.