When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Lemonade
Q: I was really doing great with my training and diet this year, but some family recently moved in with me, and it’s really thrown my schedule for a loop. They will be with me until the end of the year. It’s impossible to diet with them here, and I don’t have nearly as much time to get my training done. Should I just scrap my program and restart in January? Any advice would be greatly appreciated.
A: Without prying into your personal life, I don’t really know what you’re going through, but my best advice is, Don’t give up.
Trust me, nobody who’s spent any appreciable time in the iron game—three decades for me—has had smooth sailing all the way. Everyone has challenges, whether injuries, illness, financial hardships, work situations or family tragedies. How we deal with them and still find a way to persevere in our quest for fitness separates the proverbial men from the boys.
When it comes to diet, sometimes you just have to make the best choices possible. Yes, it’s infinitely easier to stick with a diet if you don’t have things in your house that you can’t eat, but not many people have that luxury. In most cases we have others—spouse, children or roommates—living in our homes who don’t want to eat healthfully all the time. Even if we do live with fitness-minded people, they inevitably get sick of eating the bodybuilding fare that we are capable of eating every day for months on end without even flinching.
We all have things in our refrigerators and pantries that are off-limits to us. It’s our responsibility to leave those foods—and I use the term loosely—alone. Even if you don’t have access to good food, you can make the best choices possible. For example, if there’s nothing to eat except hamburgers, you can toss the bun and eat only the meat and vegetables. If there’s nothing except fried food, you can peel the breading off. You can always do things to make the best of a bad situation.
In your case I don’t see how having to cook for family should completely wreck your normal bodybuilding diet. It may come down to preparing your foods and also preparing something different for them. Or perhaps you can compromise on something in between, but don’t throw your diet on the scrap heap just because your family eats differently than you.
My family is very understanding of my bodybuilding goals and always makes sure that at family get-togethers there are a couple of chicken breasts that I can throw on the grill and salad available—even if they’re eating fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy, with homemade cream puffs for dessert (that was my mom and dad’s anniversary dinner when I was a week out from the IFBB World Championships). One of the great things that’s happened is that my family has become much more diet-conscious because of my eating habits. So by doing your best to stick with your diet, you’ll be setting a great example for your loved ones. Here’s hoping some of your good habits will rub off.
Now, regarding your training, do not abandon the weights. Even if you have to scale back your workouts, keep pumping the iron. If your time is limited because of family obligations, just stick with the basic multijoint movements. There have been times when my leg workouts have consisted of squats and leg presses only, my chest workout was bench presses and incline presses and my back workout was deadlifts and pullups. I didn’t do any isolation exercises at all because I didn’t have time. I was, however, hitting all of the big muscle groups. Because I used multijoint, or compound, movements, all of the smaller muscle groups got worked too.
While you wouldn’t want to try to prepare for a bodybuilding show by training like that, you can increase your strength and you can certainly maintain your muscle until your time constraints improve. Training briefly and intensely on the basic compound movements will help keep your anabolic hormones up and your stress down. You’ll feel much better about yourself if you don’t have to look in the mirror and see your hard-earned muscle slipping away. Both you and your family will appreciate your keeping the stress under control.
Many times I’ve heard people say that they might as well not work out from Thanksgiving through New Year’s because their diet is so bad that it’s a waste of time. I say that it’s never a waste of time to train. If you’re eating poorly and not training, you gain fat twice as fast and lose muscle at the same time. I’ve seen it happen, and it’s depressing. Regardless of how bad your diet is, if you keep up with your weight training, you’ll at least slow the bodyfat increase and maintain your muscle. If you can fit in some cardio sessions first thing in the morning—even if it’s just 15 minutes three or four days per week—you can further control bodyfat.
Many people think that I’m always in shape, that I’m a genetic freak and that everything I touch turns to gold—none of which is true. Let me tell you, I’ve had my share of problems that I’ve had to train through, and it definitely hasn’t been easy. I’ve been through two divorces, ruptured a biceps tendon and a hamstring tendon, had a business that I put my life savings into go bust, and (most recently) had my wonderful girlfriend Diana diagnosed with breast cancer—just to name a few. The important thing is that although I’ve been knocked on my butt a number of times, I’ve never stayed on my butt. At times my priorities have had to change and bodybuilding has had to take a backseat, but I’ve never chunked it overboard.
This summer we found out about Diana’s cancer five weeks before the Europa Supershow. I was ready to bow out of the competition, but Diana insisted that I compete. Obviously I didn’t have my usual tunnel vision focus on my bodybuilding, but I did the best I could under the circumstances and ended up looking decent on contest day. The important thing is that I trained hard and stuck with my diet. Without spending as much time as I usually do on my cardio, I wasn’t in shredded condition, but I wasn’t too far from it either.
Diana has been such a tremendous inspiration to me and others during her battle. She has maintained such an amazing positive attitude from the first day she was told she had cancer, through her mastectomy, through a second surgery six days later to remove some more lymph nodes, and through two rounds of chemo. She has had no “woe is me” moments, and the only time that she’s gotten a little down was when we learned that the cancer had spread into some lymph nodes and that she would have to undergo chemotherapy and would lose her hair.
How did she respond? The next day she informed me that she wanted to have a party to shave her head before her hair started falling out. She turned the party into a fund-raiser for the Breast Cancer Resource Center. We held it at the Lucky Lounge and had a great group of friends come out to cheer her on while Rebecca Thomas of Adara Salon (Rebecca also happens to be Willie Nelson’s granddaughter) gave her the buzz cut. It was quite a fun as well as a moving event. I think back now about the evening she talked to me about her idea for the head-shaving party. She asked, “Do you think I’m crazy for doing this?” I said, “No, you’re just making lemonade.”
So, don’t give up on yourself—even for a few months. Make the best of the situation that you’ve been handed. If life gives you some lemons, make some lemonade.
Train hard and eat clean.