Ow ow ow ow ow: a primer on pain

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For many years, I lifted weights without seeing much progress. There were several things that were unwittingly holding me back. One of them was my relationship with pain.

If you’re going to lift weights to grow, you’re going to have to develop a relationship with pain. You’ll have to learn the difference between good pain and bad pain. You’ll need to learn to pursue the good pain, dwell in it as long as you can endure. But “no pain no gain” is a misleading slogan, because you’ll also need to watch out for bad pain, and be wise enough to never push yourself through it when it shows up.

Heroes and Idols

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In my previous video, I mentioned my bodybuilding heroes, who I’ve worshipped for years. A good friend asked me who they were.

So, the first answer is abstract. The first image I aspired to was a kind of amalgamation of a hundred different things. When I was a kid in the late 80s and 90s, there were images of muscular men around me.

I admired this, but only as an image.

I knew who Arnold Schwarzenegger was, who Sylvester Stallone was, who Jean Claude van Damme was, but I didn’t aspire to be like any of them. I loved their muscles, cherished the moments when they’d flex, or when their sheer largeness would be particularly apparent. But they weren’t heroes because I didn’t want to be like any one of them, specifically.

 

Dorian Yates won six consecutive Mr Olympia titles in the 90s.

I didn’t really follow competitive bodybuilding as a younger person, either. I’d only look at bodybuilding magazines when I thought I was unobserved in a store, always ready to put them back in a hurry and pick up something else if threatened with discovery. I think I had a vague idea who Dorian Yates was, the multiple Mr Olympia winner in the mid 90s who ushered in the era of the “mass monster,” where things like balance, proportion, and beauty were cast aside for blockier and bigger bodies, the freakier the better. But I never really cared that much about bodybuilding as a “sport” (is it actually a sport? Or is “sport” a term that bodybuilding culture attempts to leverage for other reasons? debatable).

 

 

 

So I guess my first idol didn’t have a name. It was an idea. Some amalgamation of images. Arnold as the Terminator striding naked through the misty Los Angeles night. A bodybuilding competition (which? I never knew or cared to know) glimpsed on the television unexpectedly. The old Charles Atlas nerd-to-hunk ads in comic books. Shirtless Eddie Brock / Venom lifting weights and planning his revenge on Peter Parker in the 90’s animated Spiderman cartoon, montage-style, muscles seeming to inflate with each rep. And maybe a hundred other things, all mashed together. I didn’t care about the personalities or histories of these people, real or fictional, what they might be like, what motivated them, what challenges they might have overcome, how they interacted with society. It was all surface, all image, all fantasy.

But now that I’m older and that I engage with bodybuilding in a deeper way, I have a few actual flesh and blood people I might point to as individuals I idolize, or at least deeply respect.

 

Craig Golias

 

Craig Golias hasn’t competed in years. He doesn’t need to, or want to. His slogan is “fuck skinny, get huge.” As he has explained it, he doesn’t mean this to be a slight against skinny people, but rather to be a radical celebration of size in a society obsessed with thinness, a push towards embracing freakdom. He’s never crypt-keeper lean like competition-ready bodybuilders (and thus, I suspect, he might be healthier than smaller – though still titanic – men who repeatedly subject themselves to the hell of a contest). Craig adamantly follows his own rules, does things his own way. At 6’3”, he is, at the moment, just shy of 350 lbs. Rich Piana is another “outsider” figure who embodies some of these qualities, but Piana is shouty, in-your-face, full of bluster, full of aggression and performative masculinity. I admire Piana’s radical honesty in an arena where so many lack that (what steroid cycles has Piana used? He’ll tell you, in a youtube video – this is very rare). Golias is more playful and less self-serious, has a tiny puffball of a dog called Princess (versus the oh so butch bulldogs preferred by so many bodybuilder bros), and is generally LGBTQ-friendly. It seems like he’s enjoying himself, like he takes pleasure in what he does, and in sharing that enthusiasm with others – a depressingly rare quality in the public personae of so many bodybuilders, who are always frowning, scowling, looking constipated, etc. Golias just seems like a genuinely great guy who’s doing bodybuilding for the only reason that really matters: to please himself, and no one else. He seems happy.

 

Bob Paris

Bob Paris, the first out professional bodybuilder.

The first out gay IFBB (international federation of bodybuilding) professional. Very few have followed in his footsteps (Mike Ergas and…. anyone else??). Paris came out in the late 80s or early 90s, when it was a lot riskier and more dangerous than now – and even today, few gay pros have the courage to do what he did (I know for sure of at least one closet case in the professional ranks, and I’m sure there are others). He’s a hero for this reason alone – he didn’t just have big muscles, he was strong in a way that really counts. Bodybuilding fans admire him for his flawless proportions, like Michelangelo’s David dialed up to 11, but that’s less interesting to me – proportions and aesthetics aren’t what excite me so much as mass. But, you know. It’s nice that the first out gay bodybuilder was a superlative success in one of the main categories of the sport/”sport.”

 

Kai Greene

There have been very few out gay bodybuilders, an impossible to discern number of closeted ones, and then a small army who have done gay-for-pay porn (soft-core or hard-core or escort work, take your pick). Kai Greene doing an office strip-tease and eventually sticking his dick into a grapefruit on a webvideo early on is a moment that has haunted his should-have-won-the-Mr-Olympia career. To his credit, he does not respond to this with a reactionary performance of hyper-normativity. Kai Greene is, to be blunt, an artsy weirdo, and I love him for it. Earlier this decade, he was the perpetual runner-up to multiple Olympia winner Phil Heath. He is the antithesis of Heath. Heath is bodybuilding as a sport, an arrogant college jock who never surprises you. Greene is bodybuilding as art, nothing but surprises, turning his posing routines into strange and challenging displays, making inscrutable statements. And he actually is an artist in the more typical sense of things, painting enormous canvases as well as transforming his actual body into a walking piece of performance art.

 

Peter Molnar

Molnar is my phone’s current wallpaper, for purely inspirational purposes. Molnar is from Hungary and I don’t know all that much about him beyond the fact that he used to play a lot of World of Warcraft (a lot of bodybuilders are basically nerds, underneath the muscles). But the way his musculature just hangs off his frame. God. If I could snap my fingers and have anyone’s build, it would be Molnar’s. It’s impossible, the genetics just aren’t there (part of what makes his look so striking is the lucky combination of genetics). But my god, I want it I want it I want it.

Personal Training and Progress

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So, really, I didn’t start to see any success in the gym until a bunch of things happened. Three things were truly vital: learning proper form and forging a mind muscle connection with each exercise; summoning greater intensity and frequency in training; learning more purposeful and intelligent eating practices, eating focused on my goals. Each was necessary. I go into this in greater detail in my “Escape From Skinny-Fat Jail” video.

But I should fess up – I was helped hugely along that path by hiring a trainer in September 2013. He taught me basically everything about form and mind-muscle connection, and also taught me a lot about intensity and frequency (eating, I’ve so far figured out on my own).

I have to believe it’s possible to succeed without a trainer, that it is possible to be a gym autodidact and to make great progress. To correctly learn form from watching youtube videos. To have the native physical intelligence to understand and cultivate mind muscle connection after having learned the concept.

However, my own experience – and the experiences of many people I know – suggest that hiring a competent trainer really is the best thing you can do to expedite the process. For me, I’m not sure I would have ever made it on my own. I had been trying for years, with very little to show for it. I was a failed gym autodidact.

When you’re used to being intelligent, when ‘smart’ is a core part of your self concept, it is humbling to realize there are subject areas where you are kind of an idiot, where you don’t have the tools to lift yourself out of your ignorance and begin to succeed. In short: I needed help, and I’m glad I eventually sought it out.

To the left is what I looked like before I got a trainer, in January of 2013. 6′ tall, 183 lbs, 25.1% body fat (according to a DEXA scan taken a couple of weeks after this photo). Keep in mind, I had been going to the gym and lifting weights for many years at that point.

Trainers are not cheap. I was lucky, in that my trainer was near the bottom rung of the ladder in terms of cost, but was very competent and dedicated in terms of skill and education – some trainers are charlatans, and others are just apathetic. My guy was neither. I didn’t research him. I just got lucky.

But even still, at $40 a session, this was an extravagence (financially offset by the fact that I stopped drinking, which is an expensive habit). Some gyms include a training session with membership. Some gyms, like many campus gyms at universities, have subsidized training which is cheaper than at commercial gyms.

Ten sessions are better than none. Five sessions are better than none. Even three are worth your while – a trainer can show you what intensity looks like, can teach you new exercises, can correct your form in a way that means you will stop wasting your time doing exercises wrong, and risking injury to boot. Or one could sign up for a group lifting seminar, where a number of new people are taught the core lifts correctly. (Anxiety-provoking? Yes. But gym anxiety is a demon that has to be wrestled with and subdued if progress is to happen. Yes, I’m planning a video, naturally).

I owe Sean, my old trainer, a gigantic debt of gratitude. I worked closely with him for about twenty months, until the gym where we trained was knocked down for Yet Another Condo Project (welcome to Toronto). In the year after that we still trained together sometimes, as we could fit it in. But we haven’t worked together regularly for a while, and not at all for a few months. I’ve been sole captain of my own ship since July 2016, programming my own workouts, making my own diet plan, etc.

To the right is what I look like today. Still 6′, 187 lbs, body fat unknown but definitely a lot lower than it was. I have delts now!

Tomorrow, I’m starting with a new coach. I say coach rather than trainer, because he’ll only be supervising one workout a week, but he’ll be setting every aspect of my training and nutrition for me. We’ll be working together very closely to push me toward my goals – and they’re ambitious goals.

I don’t know what to expect. And I’m a little nervous. I want to be this guy’s star pupil. I want to wring every bit of benefit I can from this experience. I want to learn more. I want to see where this road goes.

Custom Youtube URL

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Hey! So, once you get 100 subscribers to your channel, YouTube lets you claim a custom URL.

Mikeystrong passed the 100 mark a few weeks ago, but the tool to claim your custom URL has been broken all these weeks.

Well, now it is unbroken (or “fixed”) and we are youtube.com/mikeystrongshow—yes! easy to remember! easy to type! Does not look like your cat walked across your keyboard!

I’ll be making a few short fun little videos in the layoff between now and Season Two. Playful less than a minute long stuff like collected instagram stories or snapchats, if you are familiar with those platforms. Probably I’ll call it Mikeybites or something like that. Maybe not “Mikeybites” because I do not bite, in the pejorative sense of the term (which is kinda 90s—but not 90s enough). Mikeyclips. Mikeysnacks. Heck, I don’t know. Suggest something!

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Well, that’s a wrap!

Season One of Mikeystrong comes to a close. Thank you, everyone, for your support! As of writing, the channel has 111 subscribers. We should be able to claim our nice custom URL (they let you do that once you have 100 subscribers), but the feature has been down for more than a week now.

I had thought about starting this channel for months before we actually went ahead and did it. What did I expect it to be, and what is it shaping up to be? I guess I expected it to be a bit more conventional, and it’s shaping up to be a lot weirder – but I’m really happy about that. I feel like the channel is doing more like… outreach, I suppose. Making the world of bodybuilding legible to smart, open-minded friends who perhaps have never thought about it much, but also reaching out to people who are like I was – intensely interested, but without the material or psychological toolkit needed to pursue that interest.

So, next season, which we’ll begin to film in late January I think, will probably be more of that kind of thing. Perhaps there will be some practical videos – I wasn’t joking about a “how to deadlift” video – but I should probably get my PT certification before I embark very far down that road (and that is something else that’s in the works – in the near future, I intend mikeystrong.com to also be home to a little in-person and online coaching / training business).

Is there anything you’d like to see my channel take on? I’d love to hear. I want to keep this project going for a while. There’s a lot to say, a lot to do, a lot to think about. Onwards!