Suppose I could send a letter back in time. The letter is from the 46-year-old Tom of today, a grizzled veteran, with 25 years in the sport, lifestyle and business of bodybuilding and fitness. The letter is to the 21-year old Tom, a recent college graduate, just won his first competition, enthusiastic, full of dreams, but perhaps not exactly enlightened through experience yet. With the benefit of hindsight being 20-20, what advice would I give to the younger me?
Last year, I wrote a post about lessons I’d learned from over 30 years of training.
It was big hit! That post however, was more directed at giving advice to my readers.
So at this year’s end, when I sat down to write something new and different, the idea hit me: “Why not write a post directed at myself?” And as I realized this year marks a quarter-century since my first bodybuilding competition, I said, “Why not write a letter of advice to my younger self, of 25 years ago?”
Then, as giddily as a middle-aged investor might fantasize about sending stock tips to his younger alter-ego, I started pondering, “If only I knew back then, everything I know now, how different would things be today?”
Alas, the years have come and gone and I can’t send a message back in time, but if I could, the letter and list of tips in today’s post, below, is what I really would tell my younger self.
Self-help experts say looking back and writing a letter to your younger self is cathartic. Maybe more important to me was writing this letter and looking forward – because it’s not like my bodybuilding and fitness journey is over yet.
I suspect however, that this letter might be equally beneficial for you to read. (Entertaining at least, as you can laugh at my foibles). After all, no matter what your age, if you’re still breathing, your journey isn’t over either, and all of us can benefit from crystal clear hindsight – even someone else’s.
Advice To My Younger Self…
Dear 21-year old Tom,
This is 46-year old Tom – yes, the you from 25 years in the future – and I’ve sent this letter back in time to give you some advice.
I know you were always impressed with the older bodybuilders you saw in the magazines – guys like Al Beckles – the pro who competed in the Mr. Olympia contest in his 50’s, and held his own against guys half his age. Those “masters” athletes inspired you and you always said you wanted to keep being a bodybuilder into your 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and beyond.
However, if I know you (and I do), then it’s likely that you’ll disregard advice from the “old-timers” in the gym (believe me, your opinion of what’s “old” is going to change). For some reason, you think their advice doesn’t apply to you. Young guys should train different, and what could those old geezers teach you anyway, right?
I mean, at the ripe age of 21, especially now that you’ve won your first contest, you think you’ve got all the answers. Trust me, you don’t. You have a lot to learn, and if you don’t learn it the easy way, by listening to my advice, you’re going to waste years of effort learning it the hard way.
That’s why I’ve sent this letter back in time for you – I figure I’m probably the only “old” guy you’ll listen to! After you get over how eerie it is to hear from me, (I’m writing this at the end of December, so I guess I’m like the “ghost of fitness future”), you’ll hear out my constructive criticism, you’ll realize how valuable my letter is, you’ll be thankful I wrote it, and you’ll take my advice.
Don’t worry, I’m not here just to bust your chops. You’ve done a lot of things right, so this is your chance to get confirmation that you’re already on the right path in many ways. But it’s also your chance to learn from your mistakes, and correct them.
I guess that’s my first piece advice to you – never make the same mistake twice. It’s ok to make mistakes – lots of them, the more the better – as long as you learn from them. The trouble is, there are some mistakes you’ve repeated more than once.
Now, here are 15 more pieces of advice. Hope they are helpful. See you in 25 years.
1. Stay natural – it’s the best thing you ever did.
Since I might be a little harsh on you later in this list, let me at least start out with a compliment. Congratulations for staying steroid-free and competing in drug-tested competitions. Few things you do in your life will make you feel as good and feel as proud of yourself, when you look back, as making that decision. You did the right thing and you will never regret it. Keep your commitment.
2. Set more goals and set them higher.
I know you consider yourself an ambitious, forward-looking, goal setter. I know you read all those success books. I know you have pages filled with written goals. That’s a good start. But if you knew what I know, you’d realize your goals are too small and you haven’t set nearly enough of them. Your mind just isn’t thinking big enough yet because you haven’t been exposed to enough big thinkers and big ideas. You have no conception yet of your potential and possibilities. You’re never going to accidentally stumble into the big success. You’re only going to hit what you aim at, so you’d better start aiming higher and taking more shots.
3. NEVER second-guess yourself.
People will try to tell you you’re training or eating wrong. They’ll be persuasive. Experts will show you new concepts that run contrary to what you’re doing. They’ll be intriguing. You’ll see new research that suggests different approaches. It will be interesting. On some occasions there may be something to it, so never be closed minded. But on others, you will question yourself, start to wonder if you’re doing it wrong, and be tempted to do something stupid: Abandon what’s working. Never second-guess your results. Look at what’s working and keep doing it. Ignore everything else. When it stops working, or when you’re stuck, only then, change your approach.
4. Remember, you’re not a powerlifter, you’re a bodybuilder.
I know it’s exhilarating to lift heavy weights, and especially, set personal records. It’s a rush. I also know that you love bench pressing and you’re good at it. You did 315 pounds when you were 17 years old! Well here’s an update: your years of non stop heavy training have “rewarded” the future you with lots of time off to let the shoulder pain subside, and a partially torn pec, so you can’t bench heavy at all, even if you wanted to (plus you have a nice “divot” near your armpit). Since when was your goal to see how much you can bench, deadlift and squat? Since never. Because you’re a bodybuilder, not a powerlifter. It’s not the same sport, dummy. In a bodybuilding contest, it doesn’t matter how much you bench.
5. Compete against yourself in the gym
Smart move you made, training with guys who are bigger and stronger than you. Some of your best improvements came during those times when you had the right training partner. Let your partners inspire you to get better than you used to be and to push you to your personal best. But you’re not competing against your partner lift for lift.
Remember big George with the crazy strong arms, who did skull crushers with 225 pounds and pushdowns with the whole stack and plates added on top? And remember how you tried to catch up with his strength and you did crazy heavy cheat reps too? Well, here’s an update: My elbows are shot (your future elbows). You’re never going to be the strongest guy in the gym, and to be a great bodybuilder, you don’t have to be. If you would reduce the weight, improve your form and worry only about beating your own best lifts, you’d have more muscle and your joints won’t be screaming for mercy after you turn 40.
6. Compete against yourself onstage
It’s okay to size up the competition. It can make you set goals higher and raise your standards. But the higher you climb the competition ladder, the more it will benefit your happiness and personal fulfillment to focus on yourself and not the other guy. You have no control over who shows up or what kind of shape they’ll be in. You have no control over the judge’s decisions. You do have control over yourself. If you continue to improve yourself throughout your career, the odds are good that you’ll win a lot. But as long as “personal best” is your goal and “personal best” is what you achieve, you’ll still feel like a winner, no matter what place you’re in.
7. Never blow off the warm up and flexibility work
Aside from all the half-assed workouts you did for calves and abs (by leaving them until the end of every workout), there’s nothing you’ve blown off more than warm up and stretching. Yet there’s nothing better you’ll do for your body than maintaining range of motion and getting warm and mobile before you lift. Pay attention to how that low back pain subsides in direct proportion to how much you stretch and warm up properly, combined with using perfect form on all your sets. Walking into the gym cold, off the street, heading straight to the squat rack and doing 135 and 225 lbs as your only “warm ups” and then popping right up to 3 or 4 plates per side doesn’t make you more hardcore, it makes you a dumbass.
8. Stop squandering your improvement season.
Your pre-contest focus and work ethic are impressive. When you make up your mind on a competition, and commit, you turn it on 100%. But don’t forget that almost all your muscle gains are made in between contests, when you’re eating more healthy food. Some people go into binge mode, party mode or relax mode the second they step off stage. Some people bulk up and put on more fat than muscle and by the time they burn it all off for the next contest, they’re back to square one. I’m not saying you’re one of those people. What I’m saying is that if you put as much effort, concentration and consistency into your improvement season (and stop calling it the “off-season”), as you do the pre-contest season, that would do more to improve yourself as a bodybuilder over the long-term than anything else you could do. Year-round consistency is magic.
9. Calm down.
You get so wound up, so much of the time, and the worst part is, you’re doing it to yourself with the way you react to deadlines, workloads and life events. Chill out bro! Breathe! Stress is not good for your mind, your body or your muscle-building or fat-burning endeavors (messes up your hormones and kills your recovery too). You know how to relax. You’ve dabbled in meditation. Well, don’t dabble. Practice it. I’m not telling you to become a beach bum, or check into a Zen retreat – you’ve got work to do; you’ve got a purpose to fulfill. What I’m saying is, you don’t need to slow down, you need to calm down.
10. Practice gratitude daily.
You have many success disciplines and practices that revolve around health, fitness, business and personal development. Out of all your daily disciplines, put gratitude at the top of your list. You’ll be exposed to this idea early in life… and shrug it off. Big mistake. Keep setting goals and stay hungry, but don’t become so goal focused that you fail to appreciate everything you have now – in every sphere of life. Start every day by focusing on being thankful for what you have instead of thinking about what you don’t have. You’ll be amazed how it keeps you happier and keeps the flow of good things coming into your life.
11. Keep growing your love of reading.
You don’t know how lucky you were to stumble onto the personal development authors like Napoleon Hill, James Allen, Earl Nightingale and Jim Rohn as early you did. Never stop reading. Keep re-reading those classics – they’re not meant to be read just once. And study in your field every day as well. An hour a day of reading nutrition and exercise science, combined with putting your knowledge into action, will turn you into one of the world’s top experts in less than a decade. Two hours a day, and you’ll be world-class in only five years.
12. Put your eggs in one basket… and watch that basket.
Get really, really, good at one thing: Bodybuilding and fitness is your thing. Doing it and teaching to others is your purpose. Do not spread yourself too thin. Do not get distracted. Do not multi-task. Do not go off on tangents. Do not start a second career. Do not start another business for extra income. Do not start up another time-consuming hobby. Put everything you’ve got into the business and practice of bodybuilding and fitness, and strive to become the best at that one thing. You’ll excel in a way you never could if you split your focus.
13. Keep being an optimist
People have always recognized you for being motivated and disciplined. But one of your best traits is your optimism. Don’t ever lose that. Life can beat you down over the years. People can be mean. The system can seem broken. You’ll be lied to. Competitors will cheat. Bad guys will win. At times, it will be easier to be cynical. Don’t be. It’s going to take work, but always keep looking for the positive in every situation and keep the optimistic attitude.
14. Stay Hungry.
You’re going to achieve a lot of success in your life, but that success will be your downfall if you let it. That goes for your bodybuilding, your business, your education and your personal development. When you achieve really big goals, you tend to feel like you’ve made it, and then you rest on your laurels for too long before you set a new goal. You’ve got to do what Arnold said to do: Stay hungry. If you learn only one thing from your early hero, make it that thing. Never get complacent. Never stop setting goals. Be grateful for what you’ve got, and be happy with what you’ve got, but never be satisfied.
15. Never stop growing.
As the positive flipside of avoiding complacency, always focus on growth – and I’m not just talking about muscle. Personal growth and continuous self-improvement will deliver more happiness and satisfaction to you than almost anything else in your life. If you’re not growing, you’re dying, and you’ll feel it. If you ever catch yourself standing still, in your training, in your business or anywhere in your life, you are going to be absolutely miserable – and the more aware you become of your potential, the more miserable you’ll be if you realize you’re not fulfilling it. Never stop becoming more of what you’re capable of becoming.
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Tom Venuto is a natural bodybuilder, fat loss coach, fitness writer and author of Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle. Tom’s articles are published on hundreds of websites worldwide and he has been featured in Muscle and Fitness, Men’s Fitness, Oprah magazine, The New York Daily News, The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. He has appeared on dozens of podcasts and radio shows including Sirius XM, ESPN-1250, WCBS and Day Break USA. Tom is also the creator of the new Burn the Fat Body Transformation System and the founder and CEO of the premier fat loss support community, the Burn The Fat Inner Circle.