Nick Mitchell is a leading body composition expert and the founder of the Ultimate Performance global personal training gym. He is based in Los Angeles.
Most 20 year-old men think they know it all. I was no different. Expect I really believed that I knew it all. And I believed I was going to become a world-class bodybuilder. I got my first set of weights when I was 11 and had joined a gym by the time I was 14. I technically needed an adult to sign me in because I was so young, and when most underage kids were sneaking into the cinema to see age-restricted movies, I was sneaking into the gym to work out.
Ever since I was a kid I have loved training and there are so many aspects of bodybuilding that make a wholly positive contribution to your life. But my younger self was delusional about becoming a top-level competitor. The beauty of growing older and gaining hindsight is that you become much more aware of what you did right and what you got wrong when you were younger. There are many things I would go back and tell my younger self to do differently if I had the chance, so if you are a guy in your twenties and want to build the best body possible, read on and see some of the mistakes that I made so you can avoid them.
1 Bodybuilding is a beauty pageant
The first thing I would tell my younger self is not to waste so much of my youth on bodybuilding. I bet that admission surprised you, but it’s true. I was obsessed with becoming a pro, but it took me many years to realise that I didn’t have the right genetics to be an elite bodybuilder and nothing I could have ever done would have changed that. It’s because bodybuilding is part beauty pageant and you either have what it takes to succeed or you don’t. It’s all about genetics and aesthetic flow.
Take two guys. Both add 30lbs of lean muscle to their frames. One could look phenomenal if his physique flows and sweeps and has symmetry and proportion. The other would still look good, but never have the body required to get on stage. I would never be negative about bodybuilding because I think everyone should weight train for not only their physical, but also mental, health, and the sport teaches us perseverance, self-discipline, attention to detail and many other positive attributes that cross-over into other areas of your life.
But I spent a lot of time chasing a dream that could never be realised. I even turned down the opportunity to study in the US for a while because I was too worried that it would negatively impact my training. I beat myself up about that sometimes. My point is this: grab chances and opportunities that present themselves to you. The gym will always be there. Other chances in life might not be.
2 Start stretching
I never used to stretch my muscles. It was so boring so I just skipped it. It gave me more time to lift weights, after all. How many men today who weight train spend enough time stretching? I’d wager less than 5%. It’s only when you get a little older and the injuries start catching up with you that you realise just how important all the supplementary gym work – which includes stretching, foam rolling, massages, soft-tissue work — is to having a strong, mobile, flexible and injury-free body. Working on my mobility and flexibility is something I have spent a lot of time on recently and it’s worked wonders to how much better I move and feel.
The thing is that the longer you have ignored it, the longer it takes to fix and resolve, and I wish more young guys would spent more time on these aspects of gym training to keep their muscles in the best condition possible. Still need convincing? It will make you a better lifter. The greater your mobility and flexibility, the greater range of motion you can lift a weight through, so over time it will help you lift heavier and with better form and ability to apply tension where it’s needed to make your muscles grow bigger and stronger.
3 Be open minded
When I was younger I thought there was only one way to train. I was a disciple to the Arthur Jones principle of low volume and high intensity. That was the only way to grow. But that is garbage and I was wrong. A lot of us were wrong about this in the nineties. We all fell for the pseudo-science of low-volume bodybuilding, believing the bizarre analogy that you only need to hit a stick of dynamite once to make it explode and the same is true of muscle fibres. That’s bollocks.
Volume is clearly a very important part of the anabolic response and low-volume training means you miss out on many hypertrophy benefits. And remember that if you always do the same thing your body adapts and you stay the same. But I followed this approach for all of my bodybuilding career and although I stood on stage ripped at 17 and a half stone, I sometimes wondered how much bigger and better I could have looked if I had experimented with other training protocols. It certainly would have helped me progress faster.
4 Forget about the weight
I was also obsessed by the weight I could lift and never on feeling tension on the muscle. I remember very clearly being able to incline press with 160lb dumbbells for 14 reps – which was a pretty decent effort – but I didn’t have fantastic chest development. I did everything I could to get the weights up, with a complete disregard for muscle tension and contractions, which is what makes muscles grow. So many young guys still have that mindset that the weight you lift if all that matters. It’s a complete fallacy. Prioritise feeling the target muscle work over the weights you lift – always.
5 Keep experimenting
The reason there is no one single fool-proof training guide that will work perfectly for everyone is that we are all very different and our bodies respond to different training stimuli very differently. What works for me may not work for you at all. That’s why experimentation is so important. You should constantly tinker with exercise section, angles, hand position, feet position and all the other myriad variables to find what works best for you. The only way you ever learn is through trial and error. And the more you know about how your body responds to certain training stimuli, the more effective and efficient your training will become.
6 Keep a training diary
This is actually one thing that I have always done, and still do to this day because it is so beneficial and helpful to your progress. Your training diary is an invaluable resource because the more information you collate, the clearer it becomes to spot emerging patterns of what’s working and what isn’t.
Record every thing you do, not just sets, reps and weights, but how the session felt, your energy levels afterwards, DOMS the day after, anything and everything that will inform you about the best way to keep tinkering with how you train to keep you on the right path to consistent improvement.