‘I want to get huge, shredded, strong’I want it all.’ It’s a familiar refrain, and it would seem that with a little creativity and a lot of effort it’s possible to pull it off. As you know, however, appearances can be deceiving. As much as you might like to believe you can have everything, you can’t. In fact, the best way to get nowhere is to try to get everywhere at once.
It’s easy to see how you can be led down the path to the everywhere/nowhere syndrome: Every day images of everything from pro bodybuilding victories to Olympic gold medals are around to tantalize you. One moment you may be captivated by someone’s winning the World’s Strongest Man competition, and the next you may be thinking triathlons. Left, right, up, down: Add them all up and you land just where you started. That’s the problem with trying to combine too many things or, more important, things that work in opposition to each other. It’s those self-canceling combinations that can really block your progress.
Let’s oversimplify things just to illustrate a point. To get bigger, you need to take in more calories than you burn; to get leaner, you need to take in fewer calories than you burn. Thus, when you simultaneously want to get bigger and leaner, you should eat more calories than you need and eat fewer calories than you need. That’s a classic self-canceling combination’whatever you do in one direction is offset by what you do in the opposite direction. It certainly is possible to simultaneously increase muscle mass and decrease fat, but the fact is that some goals are easier to combine than others, and some goals are mutually exclusive. It’s the mutually exclusive goals that you need to learn to manage, not just for your physical progress but also for your peace of mind.
At the heart of these conflicting goals is the unwillingness to make choices’after all, if a game-show host lets you choose only one of three possible doors, your decision automatically requires you to give up the other two. In real life, with nobody enforcing rules like that, you want to try to open all three doors’at once, no less. Part of the problem is just knowing, or not knowing, what you want most. You can argue that one of the best ways to figure out the answer to that question is to give things a try, to see how they work for you.
The first thing to realize is that no choice is going to be perfect, and as long as whatever you choose isn’t lethal, you can probably correct your course if you want to. Most people stumble in the first part of the process because it’s too easy to get fooled when we consider things like potential goals. Research psychologists talk about ‘focusing illusion’ when people make judgments. You may focus on something that’s actually inconsequential, or you may exaggerate how much something will change your life. For example, you may think that if you can add five inches of muscle to your upper arm, your whole life will change for the better, but what you may find is that having a bigger upper arm means just that: Your arm is several inches bigger than it used to be. You don’t get smarter, better looking, more merciful or anything else that’s good in the process’your arm just gets bigger. You can imagine the cold showers awaiting all the commercially ambitious Olympic gold medalists who don’t end up on a Wheaties box or with a Coke contract.
The point is not to denigrate your goal but to make picking your goal easier and help you realize that nothing is perfect. Whatever you give up isn’t likely to be the be-all and end-all any more than whatever you choose is. Once you realize that, you can lighten up on yourself a little and use the breathing room to pick one goal or maybe a couple that go together. You may decide to train for size and strength, but simultaneously trying to gain weight and run a faster marathon won’t work.
The next part of avoiding self-canceling combinations is to understand that timing really is everything. The example of trying to eat more and less at the same time may sound idiotic, but a surprising number of people actually try to do it. You can, in fact, productively eat more and less, but it’s a matter of timing.
Back in the 1950s a young stalwart named Bruce Randall decided that he wanted to become the strongest man in the world. Bruce started off weighing about 200 pounds, and in the course of his run to the top his bodyweight went past 400. As you might guess, Bruce ate a lot of food along the way, and he used the same progressive techniques at the table that most people reserve for the gym: Day by day he consciously ate an extra chop, drank an extra glass of milk and so forth. By following that program, Bruce gained more than 200 pounds and got very strong in the process. After a while he decided that being so huge wasn’t going to be a way of life for him. He changed everything around, progressively reducing the amount of food he ate, and 32 weeks later found himself weighing 183 pounds. Later, Bruce went back up to about 225 pounds and won the Mr. Universe title. Sometimes you can come pretty close to having it all, but only if you pay attention to the timing: Bruce Randall ended up going to some very different places, making his mark in each, but he did so in a very organized manner, taking the journey one step at a time. In a world that has a lot of compelling choices, sometimes it’s hard to pick one while giving up another. The way out, you think, is to mix a little of this with a little of that’a reasonable approach, as long as you avoid self-canceling combinations. IM Editor’s note: Randall Strossen, Ph.D., edits the quarterly magazine MILO. He’s also the author of IronMind: Stronger Minds, Stronger Bodies; Super Squats: How to Gain 30 Pounds of Muscle in 6 Weeks and Paul Anderson: The Mightiest Minister. For more information call IronMind Enterprises Inc. at (530) 265-6725 or Home Gym Warehouse at (800) 447-0008, ext. 1. Visit the IronMind Web site at www .ironmind.com.