This week I turned 45 years old — so I thought I’d dust off my old photo albums, and take you through a journey of my fitness highs and lows over the years, to achieve my goal of becoming strong, lean and healthy.
On my mother’s side they are susceptible to putting on body-fat; so it’s always been a concern for me.
However, on my father’s side, there is much more of a lean and slightly muscular physique. My father didn’t have huge muscles, but he was much stronger than he looked, and often recounted stories of carrying a solid wooden wardrobe down a few flights of stairs on his own, when my parents moved house, not long after I was born.
It’s not easy for me to write this whilst looking at a photo of my father. At the time of writing this post, it’s only been a year since he passed away, so the memories of his last days are still very fresh in my mind.
A little bit of a pot belly starting. I don’t have many photos from here to my teens, as my Mother had an ice cream van, and I was helping myself to ice cream, chocolate and sweets on a daily basis.
The fat all went to my stomach and face, with the rest of my body staying mostly the same.
I remember my parents getting me to go on stage for a children’s competition at Butlins — “Picture of Health” contest. I came third, but only because there were just two other kids in the competition. They had bigger muscles than me, and I felt quite embarrassed at the time.
I have fond memories of exercising with my father in the evenings, when he came home from work. We would do just basic exercises, such as push ups and sit ups. It was the start of my fitness journey, and having exposure to fitness at such an early age is probably why I’ve exercised my whole life.
It’s one of the reasons I often teach my children a new exercise, or encourage them to join in with me.
After being bullied for a few years at school, at age 13, I cut the processed food and sweets out of my diet, and I lost my pot belly.
My parents bought me some barbells, dumbbells and a weight bench, along with a copy of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s book “The Education of a Bodybuilder.” I started on the 3 days a week programme and quickly changed the shape of my body. The bullying stopped. I then moved to a 4 day, split routine. I made some decent gains for a while, just working out in my bedroom.
I subsequently bought Arnold’s massive “Encyclopaedia of Modern Bodybuilding” — a book which still sits on my shelf today. It’s a great reference manual for bodybuilding exercises. I was eager to keep progressing, so I advanced to the 6 days a week program outlined in the book. I was training up to 2 hours a day.
I trained myself hard. To the point of absolute failure on all exercises. The gains stopped! I started feeling weaker, and beating myself up about not achieving the same number of reps as last time. This continued for a few months.
One day I measured my arms — they had lost 1 inch! I was gutted. I learned my first lesson about recovery that day. The body has only so much ability to repair itself, and if you train too soon, you’ll stop growing. Of course, if you were taking anabolic steroids, then six times a week was probably fine for recovery. There was a whole chapter in Arnold’s book dedicated to steroids, as it was fairly commonplace for bodybuilders to take them.
I’ve never taken anabolic steroids, as I’ve wanted to stay natural, and avoid any health complications. I met someone only a few months ago, who told me that he was on steroids and took a caffeine pre-workout shake, and then burst a blood vessel in his neck during his workout…he has stopped lifting weights, and could only manage walking when I met him.
Once I’d learned my lesson on overtraining, I switched back to lifting weights 3 days a week.
These were the poser years. I rarely needed an excuse to take my shirt off! I ate SO MUCH FOOD during the next couple of years —I seemed to have a really fast metabolism at that time. My diet was very clean, with lots of natural food, except for the one litre of vanilla ice cream that I ate after each workout!
I made protein shakes out of bananas, milk and raw eggs — this was years before all the salmonella scares, and the wide availability of whey protein shakes.
I kept buying more and more weight plates. My father became concerned they were going to fall through my bedroom floor, so he cleared out the garage, and that became my gym. It was cold in the winter, when I had to use a fan heater, but was great the rest of the time, as I could make as much noise as I liked.
I remember training so hard in the garage that I nearly fainted once. My vision started going black at the outsides and then it was like looking at a tunnel getting smaller and smaller. I put down the weight and crouched on the floor as still as I could — I could see again a few seconds later. I remember that shook me up a little bit.
At age 18, I worked out less at home and started going to a run by strongmen competitors. They would quite often load up a bar in the middle of the gym, and we would all queue up and deadlift it once, then queue back up again until we were all exhausted.
My bodyweight didn’t increase much, but my strength did. At a weight of only 60 kg / 132 lbs, I had a one rep maximum on the bench press of 105 kg / 231 lbs, and a squat of 160 kg / 352 lbs. I still have the piece of paper from many years ago, where I recorded the lifts.
They encouraged competing against each other in the gym, and I remember being proud that my name was on the wall scoreboard for the 60kg weight class on those two exercises.
I went to university and somehow my parents managed to transport my weight set and bench to my accommodation for the next three years. I’m surprised their little car didn’t collapse!
I didn’t realise it at the time, but this became the start of acting like a “Personal Trainer.” I had a small group of friends that I trained for free.
It’s amazing the difference ten years can make. At age 30 after a few years in an office job, I had a layer of fat starting to build up. I was looking a lot smoother, and my face was getting rounder.
I’d developed a number of bad eating habits, such as drinking a couple of caffè lattes every day (at 300 plus calories per go), and occasionally getting a burger meal to eat on the train after work. I also ate out in restaurants twice a week. I gained a few pounds of fat after every holiday, and rarely lost it. One time I gained 14 pounds, after going to a lot of all-you-can-eat buffets on vacation. I hadn’t yet understood that I couldn’t eat like a growing teenager any more.
I was aiming to go to the gym three to four times a week, but it quite often I only trained one or two times. As I started putting on body fat, like most people, I started avoiding being photographed — so I had difficulty finding a worse photo of me to show you. I got my mid-life crisis out of my system early in my thirties, with a silver convertible sports car.
My forties were the start of fatherhood, with two children, and not a lot of time on my hands for myself. I had to make sure my workouts were efficient, so I only trained two to three times per week — the minimum effective dose, allowing muscles to recuperate between workouts.
This was when I started my Calisthenics journey — Calisthenics is an advanced form of body weight training, with many of its roots in gymnastics.
I’ve kept all my workout sheets – so I can look back many years and see what I was up to. The first Calisthenics exercise I worked on was the handstand push up against the wall — achieving only 1 rep. It must have seemed really, really hard at the time — I sometimes forget how far I’ve come, as they just feel like a warm up now.
It took me a few years to give up the weights completely, and make the switch to Calisthenics full time. I’m so glad I did.
“I don’t train for aesthetics anymore — every muscle fibre has a purpose.”
I don’t do isolation exercises either (such as bicep curls) — they can sometimes encourage weak links, and injury, versus working as one complete unit. I rarely use weights for myself, except for kettle bell swings, when I want to do some cardio, or for a warm up…or to add some extra weight to the exercise I’m doing, with a dipping belt.
Every Calisthenics exercise works your entire body, and your core very hard. I don’t think about pumping up individual muscles anymore — I think “what can my body do?” The aesthetics then take care of themselves.
In my earlier “weights” years, I’d shunned bodyweight exercise as being “too easy”, but that was only because I had no idea just how hard you can make it. You can take anyone who feels relatively strong with weights in the gym, and they will fail to do a single rep, of many of the Calisthenics exercises. It’s a very humbling experience.
A great example is the overhead press. If you weigh 80 kg / 176 lbs, and you are overhead pressing 50 kg / 100 lbs in the gym, you might think that’s a pretty decent weight. Now switch to handstand push ups against the wall, and the weight has increased to 80 kg / 176 lbs. Then smoothly lower your head all the way to the floor, and push back up…it forces you to up your game pretty quickly.
Another example is the straight-arm cable pulldown exercise to isolate the lats. It’s usually done standing in the gym, with straight arms. Again you might be quite a way down the weight stack, and congratulate yourself on the high weight that you’re apparently lifting (although I find that these weight stacks are often very misleading).
The Calisthenics version of the straight-arm cable pulldown, is to hang from a bar, and whilst keeping your body in a straight plank the entire time, pull your straight arms in an arc in front of you down to your thighs, at which point you will be inverted — a.k.a. the Front Lever. It’s a much larger range of motion than the cable version. It’s significantly more difficult, and you wouldn’t believe how sore it can make your abs, having to keep your whole body in a plank the entire time. It turns it from a cable isolation exercise, to a full body exercise on a bar.
Although I’m not doing specific isolation exercises, that doesn’t mean that you can’t emphasise a particular body part. If you want to work on your biceps, then pull ups and chin up variations are a great choice.
For the meaty part of the shoulders (delts), handstand push ups and the Human Flag are my favourites. For front shoulders, the Planche will destroy them. I find the Back Lever not only works my upper back, but can make my rear delts quite sore.
Calisthenics has also brought me greater flexibility, as I’ve been forced to stretch more in order to achieve certain positions, such as Skin the Cat.
Having exercised with gym equipment for over thirty years, I decided to qualify as a Personal Trainer in my forties, to officially help other people to lose weight, get stronger, and more toned.
I enjoyed Calisthenics so much, that I also became certified as a Calisthenics instructor, so that I could share my love of it with others.
Now at 45 years old, I’m in the best shape of my life. I mostly eat Primal food six days a week — wholesome, natural and unprocessed — no sugar or wheat; Primal helped me to shed a lot of body fat. For one meal at the weekend, I have a treat meal where I eat and drink anything I like.
My shoulders are striated, and much larger than they ever were from shoulder pressing and dumbbell lateral raises. People often comment on how ripped my arms look. My body moves as one complete unit. I can do things that I never thought were possible.
What I’ve discovered as I’ve got older, is that I can’t skip warming up (otherwise instant injury!), I must stretch more, and I need to make sure I have enough time between my workouts to recover and grow.
I’d like to leave you all with this final thought…
“I always wanted to be strong and lean. Now as I’m getting older, I’ve realised I want to be healthy too. These are the cornerstones of Busy Parent Fitness: LEAN — STRONG — HEALTHY.
It is never too late to start your fitness journey, and YOU CAN look better than you ever have in your entire life. You just need to eat and train smarter.”
Until next week,
George D. Choy
Personal Trainer & Calisthenics Instructor
Gymnacity in Oxted, Surrey, United Kingdom