I enlisted in a hurry. I had been living with my girlfriend for a while and working as a parts slinger for a racing company out of Connecticut while she split her time between taking school photos and manning amusement park rides. None of our jobs came with health insurance, so when she got so sick she had to be hospitalized, I decided it was time for me to grow up and take responsibility for the life we had together. I called the local recruiting office, whose recruiters I had spoken to a few times over the past few years, and asked when I could ship out if I signed the papers that day.
“If you don’t care what job you get, you can leave Sunday,” was Staff Sergeant Burkham’s response. I hung up the phone, proposed to my girlfriend, and drove to his office. Four days later, on Easter Sunday, I left for Parris Island. We had intended to elope before I left for health insurance purposes, but decided it was better to give our families a chance to be involved. I returned home three months later to find her, recovered and beautiful, waiting to marry what little of me there was left after recruit training.
While many Marines spend time preparing for the challenges of boot camp before they go, I found myself utterly unprepared and uncertain. I’d always been a football and rugby player, never a distance runner. I’d also always been a leader, so although I found myself struggling to keep up, I made it a point to struggle at the front of the line, matching my pace with those who were stronger than I was. I was a squad leader throughout boot camp, not because I was more physically fit or capable, but simply because I was willing to hurt however much I had to in order to succeed. Despite not arriving with a whole lot of fat to expend, I lost 30 pounds during my short stint on Parris Island, and I arrived at my first duty station, Twentynine Palms, California, weaker than I had ever been in my adult life.
Because I was a few years older than most of my peers and was far more prone to idealism than your average PFC, I had both maturity and a willingness to throw myself into the culture of the Corps. Just a few weeks after I arrived, I was recommended for meritorious promotion to lance corporal (E3) and had a chance to appear before the battalion sergeant major to be assessed. I readily beat my three opponents in uniform inspections and Marine Corps knowledge and drill, only to fall hopelessly behind the competition in physical fitness scores. My second-class score was insufficient to earn me the promotion, so I would need to beat my own personal best and earn a first class in order to attain a new set of chevrons. To this day, I’m equal parts proud and embarrassed that I managed to squeeze out seven whole pull-ups before my three-mile run and abdominal crunches, barely squeaking by with a first-class score and a new rank to match.
My victory was marred by the shame I felt for being the weakest competitor in the group. Had it been a firefight, rather than a promotion board, my recollection of the first female aviator wouldn’t have won the day, nor would my smartly pressed trousers. I’d have been left to rely on the three Marines that could out-run, out-pull, and out-lift me to survive, and that was unacceptable.
In the next six years, I went from being a spindly 155-pound lance corporal to a still-slow, 230-pound sergeant. In George E. Hand IV’s recent article about hand-to-hand combat and physical training here on SOFREP, he expertly broke down the two military mentalities regarding fitness. He described the two schools as “those muscle-heads who believed in cool-looking muscles and strength as their primary focus, and those who could run like Winged Mercury, otherwise lacking in a spirited upper-body strength.” I was (and in many ways still am) a fairly devout member of that first group. So I ran in the mornings before work, lifted at lunch, and after a bit of progress, spent a few more hours each night training for the battalion football team.
I also took just about every supplement you could buy with a GNC card and a steady income.
I took testosterone boosters, creatine, protein, and even Hydroxycut and other fat-burners once I started fighting and wanted to cut my weight back down a bit. If there was a pill or a powder that promised results, I tried it, and, based on my results, one might be tempted to think they worked. After all, I did put on a solid 65 pounds from the age of 22 to the age of 28. That’s an average of over 10 pounds of muscle per year. How on earth could anyone accomplish such a thing without miracle supplements? Such was my transition that I found myself being accused of taking steroids, even by my own mother during one of my, admittedly few, trips back home for Christmas.
Those years of trying eventually forced a realization upon me: Most supplements are actually trash.
Of course, I say most because some legitimately work, but it’s rarely the ones with exclamation marks in their names. Protein works because it’s a simple mechanism: Your body needs protein to rebuild damaged muscle. Creatine works (when used properly) only because it slows the buildup of lactic acid in your muscles, allowing you to push out one or two more reps. If you don’t push for a few extra reps, all that creatine powder ends up being is extra calories in your diet. Pre-workout mixes can be effective for the same reason drinking three Red Bulls before a workout can work, but they offer diminishing returns as your body gets accustomed to the caffeine.
Testosterone boosters, muscle-builders with mysterious ingredients, and any product that tries to convince you that it’s a “legal” version of the steroids you’ve seen on TV are almost always worthless. The reason they can get away with marketing these useless pills and powders to you with promises of attaining Adonis-like proportions is because the FDA doesn’t evaluate their claims, nor do they even require disclosure of ingredients. This means you could spend a hundred dollars on a bottle of pills only to find that they’re full of rice powder, and no one is technically in violation of the law.
And that actually happens.
So if I was able to go from a second-class level of fitness at 155 pounds to a first-class level at 230, to what do I attribute my success? I believe it was a combination of three things.
The first is that I got old. Although I’m slower and softer now than I was at 23, I’m confident that today’s version of me could take that young buck in a fight. My body matured, granting me what my wife calls “man strength.” My metabolism slowed down, allowing me to pack on a few pounds, and I got smarter about how I work out.
The second was consistency. For six years, I never went more than three days without working out if I could help it. Field operations, TAD trips, and deployments would sometimes stretch it out a bit, but as soon as I was able, I was back to breaking a sweat as often as I could, in as many different types of workouts as I could. Crossfit, weightlifting, running, whatever I could do, wherever I was. Keeping my body guessing kept it improving.
Third and final among the keys to my success was diet. Now, I didn’t always eat well, but I always focused on ensuring my body had what it needed to function and grow. I counted my grams of protein and supplemented my diet with shakes in order to reach my goal for the day, but otherwise just tried to eat a balanced mix of healthy foods. Then I’d pile some vodka and bacon in for good measure.
The supplement industry is designed to try convince you that you can’t achieve your goals without their powders and pills. They show you before and after pictures that make it seem like you can go from fat to fit in just a few weeks, but the truth of the matter is, building muscle is a patience game. You won’t see results in one workout, or a week of them. Instead, it’s best to tie your workouts to a different goal: Don’t lift to “get big,” lift to get active. Aim for a new max, or a new best run time, and let the changes begin to compound.
But if you want those changes to come from a pill, you might as well not get off the couch.