Novice Lifters: Learn from My Mistakes

by John Petrizzo, DPT, SSC | April 27, 2022

female lifter in the middle of a bench press

The first time I ever touched a weight was the summer of 1997. My best friend Kevin had gotten a Weider adjustable bench and a standard 110-pound barbell set. In addition to the bench and the weight set, Kevin also got a subscription to Iron Man magazine. We were entering our freshman year of high school and we were determined to get huge.

We spent the summer diligently bench pressing and doing curls in Kevin’s backyard. Much to our dismay, by the time school came around in September, we looked like the same skinny kids we were prior to the start of summer vacation. Kevin and I quickly realized our mistake. It obviously had nothing to do with the fact that we had done no lower body training, or that our protein and caloric intakes were probably more well suited for an elderly woman than two teenage boys. No, our mistake had nothing to do with any of those things. Our mistake was that we had not used any nutritional supplements while we were training so intensely! How could we ever expect to get as big as Ronnie Coleman or Dorian Yates if we didn’t use any supplements? The answers to our problems were right there in the pages of the muscle magazines we were reading so intently. If you want to get big, you have to take supplements. It was so obvious that we were a little embarrassed by our massive error in judgement.

During the school year, both Kevin and I played on multiple sports teams, so while we weight trained a little bit, we were not as committed as we were during the summer months. We decided that next summer we were not going to make the same mistake again. The only problem we had was that we were broke. Neither of us had a real job at the time, so we had to figure out a way to save some money so we could afford supplements and not squander another summer of training.

It was at that time that we came up with an ingenious idea. Our parents would give us a couple of bucks each day to buy lunch at school. If we simply didn’t eat lunch, we could pocket that money and by the time the summer came around we would be flush with cash to spend on real gym memberships and all of the glorious supplements we wanted so badly. We called it “The Fund” and we were extremely disciplined about making sure to save as much of our lunch money as possible each week. Sometimes the hunger would get the best of us and we would buy a cookie or some chocolate milk, but for the most part, we spent the entirety of our freshman year of high school not eating lunch in order to save up for the things we thought we needed to get big and strong.

By the time the summer came, we could hardly contain our excitement. We had saved enough money to purchase gym memberships from Memorial Day through Labor Day, a bottle of Lemon Lime Phosphagen HP and Chocolate Designer Whey Protein, which were the popular creatine and protein supplements at the time. We also had a little bit of extra money to purchase a training book from Iron Man Magazine. They sold lots of books from their catalog in the back of the magazine, including Bill Starr’s The Strongest Shall Survive, but we decided on a book called “10 Week Size Surge.”

The book promised to add slabs of muscle to anyone who used it, and even featured before and after pictures of some guy named Casey Viator as an example of how well the program in the book could potentially work. It wasn’t until years later that I learned the origins of the rather famous Casey Viator before and after pictures that stemmed from his participation in the “Colorado Experiment.” At the time, everything seemed perfect. Armed with our gym memberships, muscle building supplements, and our new training program, there was nothing stopping us from building mounds of muscle this time around!

We spent that summer religiously riding our bikes to the gym, training, and downing our disgusting, gritty creatine and whey protein concoction that we would mix up and take with us. While we did actually attempt to squat and deadlift, a lot of the program we followed used isolation exercises like the chest fly and concentration curls. Much to our dismay, not much changed from the previous summer. While we got a little bit bigger and stronger, it was not anywhere near what we had hoped for. We were dejected, but undeterred.

Throughout my sophomore year, I continued to lift weights, but primarily in my bedroom. The previous Christmas, my parents got me my own adjustable weight bench and standard 110-pound barbell set. A few nights per week, after I would get home from my sports practices and had dinner (I played football, basketball, and lacrosse for my high school), I would go up to my bedroom and lift. I couldn’t really squat, but I did bench press, press, deadlift, and, of course, did my curls. I also started to pay more attention to my nutrition and forgot about using any supplements.

Over the course of the year, I was able to gain a little bit of weight and get strong enough that I needed to buy some additional plates for my weight set. I also almost killed myself several times by bench pressing alone in my room without a spotter and with the collars on the bar (don’t do that). Several times I rolled the bar down my torso after getting pinned (don’t do that). On one particularly bad occasion, my mother heard me struggling and rushed into my room and lifted the bar off of my chest. I didn’t know what was more upsetting, the fact that I missed the rep or that my mother was able to easily lift a weight off of my chest that I could not.

At the start of my junior year of high school, I weighed about 165 pounds at around 6 feet tall. I had gained approximately 30 pounds since my freshman year. Despite that fact, I certainly did not feel all that much stronger and definitely did not look any more muscular than I did as a skinny freshman. That fall, I started training with another buddy of mine, Jarrett. Jarrett had gotten into lifting over the past few years and was bigger and stronger than I was at the time. He also happened to be one of the older kids in our class, so he had already gotten his driver’s license and had a car, and we could drive to the gym to train after our practices. Jarrett and I made lots of mistakes when it came to our training. We were athletes, but we trained like bodybuilders. We started our week on Monday with “Arm Day” and then progressed through “Chest,” “Back,” and “Shoulders” on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. We generally would do our “Leg Day” at some point over the weekend.

However, Jarrett and I also got a few things right. The first was that we worked very hard in the gym. We attacked the weights each training session and constantly pushed ourselves to add more weight to the bar. Next, we got serious about eating. We forced ourselves to consume as much food as we could stomach each day and added a gallon of milk on top of that. All of a sudden, a miraculous thing started to happen. We started to get bigger. A lot bigger. And a lot stronger too. People started noticing.

Soon another buddy of ours, Mike, started to join us in the gym and we became a trio. We went to school, went to practice, trained, and repeated each day. My football coach encouraged my weight gain by tracking my bodyweight and weighing me every Friday during my lunch period. By the end of my junior year, my bodyweight had climbed to 215 pounds. I was able to gain 50 pounds in around 9 months while playing three sports that required me to practice or compete six days per week. I was able to do this despite the fact that we literally had no clue about proper programming and very little knowledge of weight training technique. We simply showed up, worked hard, and ate big.

During my senior year, I finally did something smart and purchased The Strongest Shall Survive. That book started my education regarding proper training, which I have been fortunate to continue through Starting Strength. Ultimately, things ended up working out fairly well for me despite all of my various mistakes. However, if you are a novice lifter and you are reading this article, then the chances are you are already way ahead of the game in terms of where I was when I was in your shoes. If you read the blue and gray books, you will have a better understanding of strength training technique and programming than most anybody you will run into at your gym. However, even the best program will not yield the results you are looking for if you do not put in the required effort, both in the gym and out of it. At the end of the day, there is simply no substitute for consistent hard work under the bar and taking your nutrition seriously. Ignore the distractions, put in the work, and the desired results will follow.

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