10 Years Later… (10 Big Picture Ideas From 10 years in the Iron Game)
Today is a special day for me.
10 years ago my father signed me up for my very first gym membership. It was the day I entered the Iron Game.
It was an exciting time for me because I knew I was beginning a journey.
I wasn’t quite sure where it would take me.
All I knew was that starting this simple habit (going to the gym to lift weights) would change my life forever in every positive way I could imagine.
I dreamed… There was only one outcome. Strength.
That was 2006.
And now, 10 years later, I reflect on 10 big picture ideas from 10 years in the iron game.
*** Just so you guys know, I have been chomping at the bits to write this article ever since I started Strength By Sonny.
I was tempted to write an 8 year anniversary post (with 8 points) two years ago. But deep down I knew 10 was so much better. So I had to be patient.
We’re finally here!
1. The battle mentality.
The number one benefit I have gotten from the gym is not what you would expect…
It’s not the girls.
It’s not the body (and everything that comes along with it).
All of those things have resulted but they are rooted in the mindset.
I’m talking about the battle mentality.
Your actions (who you are as a person) don’t mean anything when everything is going smoothly.
Neither do your workouts. Smooth workouts where everything goes according to plan are meaningless.
What happens when you run out of gas? What happens when you don’t have what it takes to go on?
What happens when nothing is going as planned?
When you play the iron game the right way, you develop the ability to rally.
That’s what winning (in anything) is all about.
Get ready to battle. You better fall in love with battling.
Notice the difference
I was talking with a kid at the Wake gym recently and he was asking me about leg training.
I told him I was going to bury him. He had no idea what I was going to put him through.
He got intimidated and decided to stick with his lame leg workouts of leg extensions and machine leg presses.
He admitted to defeat before we even started. He never even tried to see what he was made of.
That kid is a loser. He doesn’t have the battle mentality.
If you want to see an example of the battle mentality, listen to my podcasts with Markus Reinhardt.
He talks about how during our upcoming leg workout he was going to bury me.
Listen to my response. I basically tell him that there was no way in hell he (or anyone) could ever bury me.
I kept my cool but deep down I was angry…
There’s no fucking way it will ever happen.
No one will ever fucking bury me.
That’s the battle mentality.
2. This game is often won or lost in the beginning.
Your beginning is everything.
It’s when you are going to make those initial gains.
More importantly, it’s when you are going to establish the foundation for this battle mentality.
You have to want it.
I didn’t have a game plan in the beginning.
But I had the blueprint to win (and win forever).
I wanted it.
In my experience, most people lose right away.
They don’t understand that the gym (like anything in life) is hardest in the beginning.
Everything in life is always hardest in the beginning. Do you know why?
Because that’s life’s way of screening.
Life is doing everything it can to screen you out.
Life doesn’t want a bunch of winners running around.
Winners have options and when the masses start winning, they won’t stand settle for chronic losing. Get it?
Thus, the early years are when you make your bones.
That’s when you have to do all the annoying little shit that might not seem like much now but years later you will be so grateful that you did it.
Ex. Learning your strengths/weakness, figuring out any asymmetries (and strength imbalances), learning the mechanics of the basic movements, figuring out those initial go to exercises, understanding which machine does what
Unfortunately, no one wants to go through the little menial tasks. No one wants to go through those initial struggles.
More importantly, no one wants to battle.
In the beginning, it’s all about those battles.
What they don’t realize is that the only way to become battle tested is to subject yourself to many battles.
In the beginning I came to battle every day.
There was no magic pill.
I just went to the gym for 2 hours, 6 days a week.
I lived for those early battles.
I liked to punish myself because I knew it gave me a mental edge.
That’s the difference between those that make it and those that flounder out.
“That’s it?… No motherfucker. You got 3 more in you. 1,2,3. Okay 1 more. 1 more. 1 more. 1 more. Okay 1 more. Done.”
I lived for the end of the workout because that’s prime time. That’s when you really turn it on.
That was my mentality in 2006.
I did everything I could until I couldn’t do anymore. And then… I still found something else to do.
After 10 years in this game, here’s how I can tell the winners of the distant future from the losers of tomorrow…
1. Have a ruthless work ethic. They come to battle every day.
2. They crave “more”. They look for the more difficult challenge.
3. Seek out/Ask questions/learn from/train with the pros.
4. Understand that there is no end to this game.
5. Have a sense of adventure. They are willing to try new things. They also have a slight sense of recklessness where they just have to “go for it”.
6. They have a “refuse to die” approach.
1. Make excuses.
2. Immediately look for shortcuts. (ex. contemplating steroids after a month of training)
3. Constantly think in terms of capping questions (more on that later).
4. Never go for it or push their limits.
The lowest of the low are the ones participate in endless advice asking and then follow it up with zero action.
The other day I went to my favorite Japanese restaurant to get a to go order.
The same man was working the register since I last visited 3 years ago.
He didn’t remember me but I remembered him.
3 years ago he asked me how to get jacked and what supplements to take.
I told him everything I knew on how to get started and what protein to take.
3 years ago… I knew. I knew that I had wasted my time giving him free gold. I knew he would never sign up at the gym. I knew he would never buy the food/supplements I suggested. I knew nothing would change.
3 years later… I was right. Nothing changed. He was just older and considerably fatter.
I asked him what happened. I had to remind him of our conversation 3 years ago.
He told me he forgot. In one ear out the other…
The ones who make it always light up in the beginning. They get started right away.
You can’t hold them back.
Their minds run wild with possibilities. They have to start taking action.
They approach this realm like a battlefield in the beginning… and they never stop swinging.
3. This game is about self-discovery and long term training customization.
“How do I get started in the gym?”
It’s very simple. You show up every day and start experimenting.
That’s all it is in the beginning. That’s the best way to think about lifelong success in the gym.
The beginning is crucial because this is when the process of self-discovery begins.
What works for Johnny is not going to work for you. What works for you is not going to work for Tommy.
Like all things in life, you’re not going to have a clue in the beginning.
You’re just trying a bunch of different things and hoping that you don’t look like an idiot (and avoid injury).
But eventually you start to figure things out. You begin to develop a routine (initial exercises and splits).
You find yourself in a nice little groove (where you’re getting bigger and stronger) so you stick with that for a while.
And eventually you stagnate (or get bored) so you do something else… Maybe you try a different split. Maybe you experiment with different exercises. Maybe you play around with the form. Maybe you increase the volume. Maybe you try hit training…
You see where I’m going with this? The possibilities are endless and you are always experimenting.
You are always on that path of long term customization.
To this day, I take the holidays off from lifting. But I always sneak a few days in to the gym, not to work out… but to experiment.
That’s what I do, I tinker. I try different movements out.
“Maybe this will work… I wonder how this feels if I did it from this angle… What if I really slowed it down and emphasized the contraction…”
There’s only one way to find out. Try it out.
Let’s see what happens.
4. Caps (and capping questions) are for losers. They are poisonous.
We all know what caps (and capping questions) are. We’ve all heard them. We’ve all asked them.
Someone who operates with a capping mindset is a pessimist. They are always preparing for failure.
Losing and helplessness are right around the corner. They expect it.
Let me tell you a story from way back in the day.
About a week after I first started training, I presented a coworker (and high school classmate) with the opportunity of a lifetime.
I asked if he wanted to train with me. He was reluctant at first but eventually agreed.
From the beginning, I knew he would eventually burn out.
The few times we trained, he was a nightmare. You couldn’t motivate him.
More importantly, he was always asking capping questions and making capping statements.
“I just want to tone up. I don’t want to get too big like those bodybuilder guys.”
“How long are we gonna lift?”
“How much longer is it gonna take?”
“How long do you think it’s gonna take me to get jacked?”
“Are we done yet?”
“Can we stop?”
“How long do you think I should wait until I start taking steroids?”
After about a week, he made it easy on me. One excuse after another came in as to why he couldn’t make it… he was done.
I knew it when I had to try to convince him.
That’s what I mean when I say capping questions or caps.
Here’s a good
one myth: “You max out your genetic potential after 2 years”. Bullshit. 10 years later… still making natty gains. Next.
Another one I’ve heard is: What’s the easiest/fastest way to get jacked?
Another sneaky way of asking it is: What’s the most “efficient” way to get jacked?
It’s all the same bullshit.
There is no such thing as “efficiency” in the early days.
The early days are very inefficient.
The early days are very messy.
It’s a confusing time because there’s a million different sources giving you a million different pieces of advice that all seem to conflict one another.
The only real advice you can rely on is your own instinct.
You think the early days suck because you have a vision in your mind and you’re so far away.
Ironically, the fastest way to get there is to eliminate the capping questions. Eliminate the “caps” mindset.
5. Training partners are more useful in the beginning.
About a year and a half after I started training, I had the opportunity to train with a bad ass mother fucker… Big Mike.
Big Mike worked the front desk at my gym. He was a year older than me and he knew his shit.
Every once in a while I would say what’s up and ask for some advice here and there.
He was a big tough Italian/Polack kid from Brooklyn.
One day he came up to me and said he needed a training partner to help him get ready for his first show.
I was all in.
For months we trained our assess off.
I thought I was a big bad motherfucker. This dude was on another level.
This motherfucker showed me how to really battle during late 2007/early 2008.
Our training sessions were tests of sheer willpower. We weren’t just battling the weights. We were battling each other.
Who wanted it more?
“C’mon Sonny don’t let me beat you!!!”
“You got more goddammit!!!”
*** Whoever went first was always at a disadvantage. That’s just how it was.
There was no way he was going to go first, squat 315 for 20 reps, and beat me. There was no way I wasn’t getting at least 21. Shit I might even bury him and get 25.
On the flip side, there was no way I was deadlifting 405 for 15 reps and he wasn’t beating me (Actually, he always beat me on deadlifts).
That’s how we operated.
One story comes to mind….
During the middle of a leg workout were doing triple drop sets of hack squats. The idea was to get to 100 reps total.
Start with 3 plates. Take that to failure. Drop to 2 take that to failure. And then drop it to one and take it to failure.
Mike went first. He got to 1 plate and gave out on rep 76.
I never got to one plate. I did 25 reps with 3 plates and did the remaining 76 reps (had to get one more) with 2 plates.
That’s what training was for us. Constant battling and finding out what we were made of…
I think my case is a good example of how you should go about this training partner business.
Let’s be honest here. You’re not going to train with the same training partner(s) for years and years and years.
People move. People switch gyms. People change schedules.
I only trained with Big Mike consistently for a couple of months.
But it was perfect because it was mutually beneficial. He trained with someone who could match him (and beat him).
I trained with someone who could show me the way.
That’s what he did. He showed me the way. I learned so much about training and the battle mentality under his guidance.
I really never needed to train with anyone ever again. Once I fully grasped split training (which he helped me understand), I knew what I had to do.
Sure over the years, I’ve trained with close friends here and there. But for the most part, this has been a solo mission for me.
As you progress, you’ll realize that usually works best.
Once you learn the way and really start to develop an understanding of yourself, you really just want to be a one man wrecking crew.
That way you’re free. There’s no excuses. No one is holding you back. You only have to worry about yourself.
6. The earlier you start playing, the better.
I started playing this game when I was 16 years old. I’m 26 now.
What you see is the result of 10 years of hard work.
Can you imagine the amount of raw energy and emotion that went in to building this vessel?
If you can, you’re off to a good start 🙂
But in all honesty the timing was perfect for me.
I started when I was 16 and by the time I was 18, I had already established a solid foundation and fully understood the concept of customized split training.
Those teenager years are crucial. That’s when you have all of that youthful energy. That’s the perfect time to start training and building that battle mentality.
At that age, you don’t really deal with too much stress. You go to school. Mom and Dad pay your bills. Maybe you get a part time job.
For you guys who still live like kids with your parents, enjoy it because the game totally changes when you get out of the house.
Being on your own has many perks. But it also entails a lot of responsibility.
Working a full-time and supporting yourself is stressful. It drains you of your energy.
That is not the time to start from the bottom. You don’t have the energy or the time.
The later you start, the more stress and responsibilities (and less testosterone) you likely have.
Like Mike said, “It’s easier to build and maintain the physique you build in your 20″s than it is to obtain one in your 30’s”.
I absolutely agree. In fact, I would argue that you start even sooner than that.
7. “Dieting” should not be difficult.
If there’s one thing I could go back and change, I would develop a better understanding of “dieting” sooner.
“Dieting” is a term everyone hates to hear because it implies suffering. You have to exercise incredible self’-discipline to get shredded.
Most people either get psyched out before they begin or they crack after a few days.
Even though I grew up eating mostly healthy food, I still ate my fair share of junk food.
And genetics was always a plus. I could go out drinking, eat a bunch of Cookout, and pass out at 3 AM… and still have a 6-pack the next day.
It did that pretty much all throughout college.
However, there came a time when I started challenging myself to get super shredded once a year.
I did this for the first time in 2012 and man was it a struggle.
It got a little easier year by year until this year when I finally got it.
Over the past few years, I have slowly weaned myself off of junk food.
I now understand that dieting is easy. You simply have to enjoy healthy food more than junk food.
That’s where I’m at now and it only took me the last 4 years to finally figure it out.
I eat whatever I want now. However, the catch is, I truly only like healthy food.
A steak bowl with brown rice is so much more appealing to me than a burger and fries.
Dieting is so simple for me now because now it’s a game of eating whatever I want and then taking out some of the carbs when I want to get shredded.
Currently, this is the best I’ve ever looked or felt.
8. When you are a noob, the answer is more. When you are a pro, the answer is less.
This is another point I probably should have grasped sooner.
In the beginning, I fully embraced the most important rule of success.
You must fight many battles.
I got that and my training reflected that.
However, there comes a time when you must take your foot off the gas.
There comes a point when you need to take a step back and realize… “It’s okay. I made it. I don’t have to claw for inch like my life depended on it.”
That’s one mistake I made.
I was too hard on myself. I didn’t have to keep doing high volume supersetted workouts.
I did everything right in the beginning. I never cheated myself. I made my bones time and time again.
When was the cutoff? Realistically, I would say about 4 years ago.
4 years ago, I could have significantly cut down on the volume training.
But that was the battle mentality at work. I saw “taking it easy” as admitting to defeat.
Overtraining is still bullshit for beginners.
Overtraining is just another opportunity for pussies to put caps (and ask capping questions) on the potential?
In most instances, you’re not even close to training to full capacity. It often takes a great training partner to show you the way.
In the beginning you don’t get any perks. You don’t get to take it easy on yourself.
You’re not entitled to anything yet because you haven’t earned anything yet? Do you understand that?
You must fight a lot of battles before you can even think about taking it easy on yourself.
You will fight battles.
You will get sick and throw up during leg workouts.
You will be unable to take your shirt off after arm workouts.
You will need someone to drive you home after an intense back workout.
You do that for years. You get entrenched in that mentality.
Eventually, the hard will be admitting victory.
“I’ve done all the right things and I have years of experience winning the muscle building game. I have created a monster. I don’t need to train like I’m starting from scratch anymore. I can take my foot off the gas. It’s time for me to train smart and focus solely on muscle fiber recruitment.”
9. The right climate is everything.
Climate is everything in your health and fitness. It impacts everything.
- testosterone levels
- ability to build muscle/lose fat
- your energy
- your sleep
- your mood
- your mindset
- your skin (moisture, color, etc.)
If you want to optimize your life, you must live and train in the right climate.
New York is great for me except for the winters.
Texas was good. Sometimes the sun (heat) was too much.
Las Vegas was too much. The desert sun fries me and drains me of my energy.
North Carolina is perfect for me.
This is the best I have ever looked and felt.
At first you probably won’t have much of a choice due to financial reasons. But once you get on you feet and get some options be like Goldilocks.
Find “just right” and stick with it. You only got one life. You might as well try to make it perfect.
10. There will come a point when you must turn to science. DO NOT rush to get there.
Performance enhancing drugs are widely misunderstood by the general public.
Should you use steroids? Most of the time the answer is no.
The only people who should use steroids are the following:
- professional athletes
- bodybuilders (and fitness models)
- people who have made their bones and know what they are doing (get blood work done, have a basic understanding of the endocrinology system, etc.)
- people who are under the guidance of a doctor
When you do decide, hopefully you’re in that third category.
Other than that, you shouldn’t go near any of that stuff.
Today, anyone can get jacked. All you need to do is take the right drugs. That’s really how it is.
However, patience goes a long way in this game.
Legendary bodybuilder Shawn Ray said it best in an interview: “The difference between bodybuilders from my era is that when we started using drugs we already had elite level physiques. I was already a Mercedes Benz. Steroids enabled me to become a Ferrari. So many bodybuilders today don’t get it. They start using drugs as soon as they start training. They start out as a Volkswagens and try use drugs to build fast along the way to become a Ferrari. It doesn’t work that way.”
In other words…
You cannot skip making your bones!
I’ve said it over and over again because you must understand that.
There are so many more benefits to doing it the right way and making your bones. (See: Battle Mentality)
I had a long talk with a kid at my gym the other day.
He’s 20 years and has been training for 4 years. He’s still one of those skinny fat kids with just a little bit of muscle. In other words, you could look at him and think he’s never worked out before.
He’s on the fence about taking steroids and he wanted my input. I gave it to him point blank.
“Listen bro. You don’t need steroids. Your problem is very simple. You’re a fucking pussy. I’ve seen you train. You have no fight in you. You still look like a dude who barely works out because you are… You don’t know how to battle. Steroids won’t change anything. You might get a little bit of size. But you’ll be a dough boy. You will develop unaesthetic muscle. You will look like someone with slapped on body parts. There won’t be any symmetry. You’re looking for shortcuts. Well you haven’t earned them yet. You still gotta earn your stripes kid.”
Look at me now. I’m 26 and look better than ever. I’ve never used anything.
Can you imagine what’s going to happen when I start using testosterone? Even something small like 200 mg/dL of testosterone cypionate per week.
Whenever I decide to join the dark side, it will not be too soon.
I remember back in 2007 I was looking at a bodybuilding magazine with Dennis Wolf on the cover.
My dad told me it was all bullshit because those guys all use drugs.
I told him: “No dad you’re wrong. They get tested. All those guys are natural.”
Christ I was a moron… But that misguided optimism helped me out.
I think in my case, it helped to be a little ignorant in the beginning. It helped to believe in Santa Claus.
Sometimes ignorance is crucial to thinking big and disregarding your limits.
I thought I would one day look like Ronnie Coleman without ever using steroids.
I obviously never came close. But I didn’t do too bad…
For years, I thought using steroids/HGH was cheating. I was strongly against them.
As a result, I stayed far away from them.
I still think the same way with regard to beginners.
Wait until you have made significant improvements and actually know what you are doing.
Prolong drug use for as long as possible.
Never stop believing. You could do anything you set your mind to. Imagine you do that for years and truly fulfill your potential.
Imagine the results when you starting using shit with many years of experience and an actual understanding of what you are putting in to your body.
Talk about a magic pill…
I’ve never been one of those writer’s who gets emotional writing a post but this time is different.
My life has been a journey so far. Friends have come and gone.
Who knows how many chicks have been in the picture.
I’ve completed high school, college, and graduate school.
I’ve lived all over the United States.
The gym has been my one constant (family too).
I see that 16 year old kid walking in to Sunrise Fitness during the summer of 2006. He is determined. He is a future winner because he has the heart of a champion.
He is optimistic but he is ruthless.
He understands that today is the day he starts making his bones.
I see that 18 year old hot shot slugging away in World Gym during the summer of 2008. He just finished high school and is on top of the world. His motivation is at an all time high because a new journey begins at the end of the summer (college). He’s 2 years in to the game and pretty much has this thing figured out now.
Fast forward a few months and I see that same kid starting college. His parents want to admire the beautiful Wake Forest campus. He wants to see the gym just to make sure he made a good choice (he did).
During college, the Miller Center offered a sense of stability. He partied hard. He studied hard. But he never lost it. He stayed true to his roots and consistently trained hard.
Summer 2011 was a turning point of sorts. I see that 21 year old kid in Washington DC. A full schedule of classes and an internship are a challenge. But they don’t stop him. Everyday after “work” he takes the subway to Chinatown to train at Vida. It is here where he takes his training to an even higher level. He fully embraces superset training.
Fast forward a few years and he’s in Austin, Texas liftin’ heavy ass weights at Lifetime Fitness and loving every bit of that Texas heat.
Las Vegas might as well have been yesterday. But then again it feels like forever ago.
LVAC represented so many things. On one hand it was the realization of a goal 2 years in the making. On the other hand, it’s a reminder that everything comes with a price.
I never told you guys this but I got out of Las Vegas just in time…
Deep down I started to dread going to the gym. I skipped workouts and even developed some poor eating habits toward the end.
I had to leave and briefly return to New York to rediscover that fire.
I had to become reacquainted with the battle mentality.
How did I do it?… that’s a story for another story 😉
Now I’m back home writing this.
When I look back on my 10 years in this game, I remember it all.
I remember all the workouts.
I remember every single one of my battles.
I remember the dog days and the triumphs.
I remember the epiphanies.
But the beginning is what stands out to me. How could it not?
I remember that summer so vividly. 10 years ago…
I’m laughing because I knew so little about training and dieting. My workouts had zero structure.
I didn’t know anything about anything really.
I didn’t know the right way to work out.
I was just winged it and learned along the way.
I was such an amateur!
But I was a pro where it counted.
My competitive spirit was unmatched. You couldn’t buy it anywhere. You still can’t.
I had heart and I knew deep down that I would never give up.
I knew that showing up was the key.
I tried as many exercises/machines as I could because instinct told me that that it would help me form some sort of identity and maybe even some organization.
And I never made any excuses.
I always had a winning attitude and I believed that anything was possible.
10 years later I realize that the beginning is an amazing gift.
The beginning is a gift because you know so little but your game plan will never be easier.
It’s so simple.
Show up everyday.
Be prepared to battle. Be prepared to pour your heart and soul in to your workouts.
Dear God you have to love to battle.
Don’t ever give up.
That’s the most important rule of all. If you only get one thing from this article make sure it’s this:
Don’t ever give up. Don’t ever stop fighting.
That goes for anything in life.
You keep fighting.
The dog days are fleeting. They’re nothing. They’re a spec. You endure and move forward.
It’s the winning that’s slow.
It takes some time to get there. But once you get there, you’re truly ready. You know what it takes to stay there.
Winning becomes a habit that develops in to a lifestyle.
And if you want it bad enough, winning becomes eternal.
E-mail me to start building the battle mentality.