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I Spent A Year Trying To Bulk Up And Get Swole And This Is What Happened

Let's get real.

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Hey, I'm Spencer. Last March I started this cool, intense fitness project where I basically tried to gain as much muscle mass as possible.

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I've had body image issues for as long as I can remember. Even in elementary school I'd compare myself with the other kids, convincing myself that I was too small and not strong enough. But last year my self-esteem and confidence were at an all-time low. I seriously questioned the way I looked and felt because I didn't fit the mainstream norm. I did not think I deserved to feel good.

After countless attempts to gain weight and muscle but never really succeeding, I enlisted the help of trainer and registered dietitian Albert Matheny, who's the founder of SoHo Strength Lab and ProMix Nutrition, to see if he could help me change my body.

I ultimately gained 20 pounds in 12 weeks, and after the project was over I decided to continue with the workout and nutrition plans. Here are the most important things I learned in the last year.

1. Be patient, because you probably won't see changes immediately.

Instagram: @spenceralthouse

Working out can be scary and exhausting and exhilarating and rewarding. Everyone wants to see instant results, but that's just not possible. I had to put in a lot of hard work – I literally drank a thousand protein shakes in a year – and spent countless hours at the gym before seeing any changes with my body.

There's nothing glamorous about sweating or having to watch what you eat. My fitness journey has literally been a lifestyle change, and it took a lot of time for me to see results.

2. Celebrate the small victories as you're trying to achieve your overall goal.

Spencer Althouse

Focusing solely on the number of pounds I lost or gained was super detrimental to my fitness journey. Instead of trying to hit X number of pounds within X days, I celebrated other types of progress, like outgrowing my jeans, squatting a certain amount, and having to adjust the wristband on my watch because it got too tight. All of these were casual reminders that I was actually making progress.

3. Understand that your goals may change, and that's totally OK.

Instagram: @spenceralthouse

I finished my fitness project with the intention of gaining another 20 pounds and then trimming down from there. After a while, I realized that I'd rather concentrate on increasing my physical strength instead of my body weight. I changed my goals to things like deadlifting over 300 pounds (shown above) and doing 15 consecutive pull-ups. This allowed me to create and accomplish even more personal goals, rather than setting a single bodyweight goal that wouldn't be realistic to achieve until six months down the line.

4. Keep in mind that there are some things you literally just can’t control.

I had a few setbacks throughout the year, ranging anywhere from a blizzard closing down my gym (shown above) to my getting sick.

Getting sick caused me to lose a ton of weight, which was the opposite of what I wanted. I ended up with the stomach flu at one point and missed multiple days at the gym, ultimately causing me to lose 9 pounds. I also had to get my wisdom teeth removed, which resulted in even more pounds lost and days off.

These random, uncontrollable obstacles totally sucked, and it took a lot of time and hard work to gain the weight back. But I learned that missing workouts was totally OK because it gave my body a chance to get extra rest and recovery, which actually helped my progress.

5. If you’re ever away or on vacation, be creative about new ways to get your workout in.

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Missing a workout is never fun. It makes me feel super guilty and can seriously throw me off my game. If I'm ever on vacation or home for the holidays, I research which gyms in my area offer free trials. Some may only offer day passes, but I've gotten three days and even a full week for free before.

Also, I try to turn trips and vacations into new opportunities to do different kinds of workouts, whether I'm going for hikes or doing full-body workouts from the comfort of a hotel room or Airbnb (I like to do elevated pushups off of chairs or a bed).

6. To make working out more fun, change up your routine and join classes tailored to your interests.

Instagram: @spenceralthouse

Working out is my favorite part of the day now. I love it. The key is to make each workout as fun as possible for yourself, so you actually look forward to it. I get a thrill out of challenging myself and seeing how far I can push my body, so if I’m ever feeling unenthused, I try to switch things up. Sometimes I’ll add in handstands or climb ropes or do pull-ups with gymnastics rings. I need to enjoy what I'm doing in the gym, otherwise I won’t be motivated to work out in the first place.

If you're interested in my workout routines, I put them into two different BuzzFeed posts, which include how-to GIFs and instructions. You can find the warm-ups post here and the gym exercises post here.

7. Don't set out to change the rest of your life — just start by making a 30-day commitment.

Instagram: @spenceralthouse

After the first month of my fitness project, my workout schedule became so routine that I found myself actually enjoying it (although I wasn't totally free of any hardship or heartache – waking up before the sun comes out is not always fun). It was easier to look at things in terms of month-long periods, and once those were over I'd say to myself, "Well, I just did it for 30 days... why not another 30?" This relieved a lot of pressure, and I didn't feel obligated to do anything.

8. Find a way to make cooking less of a chore.

Instagram: @spenceralthouse

Cooking my own meals was a great way to save a lot of money and control exactly what I was putting in my mouth. I used Netflix to turn cooking into an activity instead of a chore. I put my laptop on the counter while preparing dinner, and by the time an episode of 30 Rock was over, my meal was made and the dishes were cleaned. Easy.

9. Try to keep track of all your workouts.

Spencer Althouse

I use the Notes app to record the number of sets, reps, and weight of my big lifts during each workout. This shows me how much I have to lift during my next workout, and it always pushes me to outdo myself. It's a lifesaver.

10. Instead of comparing yourself with other people, compare yourself with your old self.

I remember spending so much time looking at other people in the gym and in magazines and wishing I looked like them. I compared our bodies as a way to measure my success. It's totally fine that some people have specific goals tailored to their body composition, but doing this made me doubt my own progress.

To counter this, I started looking at old pictures of myself and thinking about all the things I couldn't do before starting my fitness journey. This allowed me to see how much progress I've actually made, and it motivated me to keep going.

11. Consider trying to become a morning workout person – it may help you meet your fitness goals.

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It was super important for me to get into an early morning routine. It didn't even take long for my body to adjust. My morning workouts allowed me to unconsciously make healthier decisions throughout the rest of the day: I felt less tempted to dive into all the snacks at the office, I always tried taking the stairs instead of the elevator, and I even found myself substituting parts of my meals for healthier options.

There are also fewer distractions for me if I go to the gym in the morning. If I went at the end of the day, I'd have more time to come up with excuses to skip the gym: coworkers wanting to grab dinner or drinks, my being overwhelmed or tired and just wanting to go home, etc.

Here are some clever tips for becoming a morning exerciser.

12. Don’t deprive yourself of certain foods just because of your diet.

Spencer Althouse

Look, I’m on a weird and amazing high-fat, low-carb diet (I eat ice cream as soon as I wake up, for crying out loud). But for a while I was too strict and deprived myself of my favorite foods, simply because I didn’t want to ruin my progress. It took me a while to learn that an occasional bowl of pasta, stack of pancakes, or midnight snack won’t throw me off. Life’s too short to not eat your favorite foods.

13. And don't give up on your social life or quit eating at your favorite restaurants.

Instagram: @spenceralthouse

I found myself turning down a lot of fun times with friends because of my new lifestyle, which was kind of paradoxical because my whole fitness journey was supposed to be about putting myself first. Eating out did not mean I couldn't take a break from my nutrition plan every once in a while. There were also plenty of ways to follow my diet while eating out, like making simple substitutions. I often replaced French fries with side salads, and I'd ask for ranch dressing because I wanted a fattier dressing, rather than something lighter or oil-based.

14. Teach yourself about the foods you're eating and how they affect your results, but try not to obsess over it.

Instagram: @spenceralthouse

When I first started the project I was so worried about not getting enough fat into my body, so I'd literally just melt butter into my dinners and late-night protein shakes. The MyFitnessPal app was great because it counted my daily calories and intake of fat, carbs, and protein. After a while it was pretty easy to automatically figure out the macros of what I was eating, so instead of tediously planning my meals and inputting data into the app, I started using it more sporadically. This made me feel more in control, and it also got rid of the stress that came with the word “diet.”

15. Find someone who's as committed to your journey as you are.

Taylor Miller

Getting to work with Matheny was sort of a dream come true. Before I started my fitness project, he ended up being even more optimistic than I was about my potential progress. He became someone who I didn't want to let down. He also pushed me harder than I sometimes pushed myself. There were times when he sort of just expected me to lift a certain amount, and I'd do it, not even knowing that my body was capable.

Having someone who wanted to keep tabs on my goals and progress was super motivating, and it got me through my toughest workouts. This showed me how important it was to have a support group.

16. As a way to hold yourself accountable, share your goals with friends, family, or even coworkers.

Instagram: @spenceralthouse

I was lucky enough to work with a personal trainer once a week, but not everyone has that luxury, so it was important for me to find other ways to create support groups. Telling people – even if they're strangers online – about my goals and progress put a little added pressure on myself to actually follow through with everything. This provided me with people I could rely on, and it also allowed other people to follow and be inspired by my journey.

17. And most importantly, you should continually try to discover new reasons to love yourself.

I spent my whole life questioning my own self-worth, and to be honest I sometimes still do. But my fitness journey helped me discover new things that I actually liked about myself. Some were physical attributes, like my butt, but others were about my character, like how determined I can be.

My relationship with my body has definitely changed too. I never thought I’d weigh more than 150 pounds (let alone hitting 165 when I finished my project). I just accepted it as a fact, because no matter how much I ate or worked out I could never put on the weight. But there was a moment last year when I got really sick and my weight was getting closer to that 150-pound mark again. Instead of letting the fear of falling below 150 control me, I tried to own it. I asked a friend from work, who’s a professional photographer and typically takes half-naked pics of guys, to take some photos of me (shown above on the left). Something clicked for me during the shoot, and for the first time I truly felt comfortable with myself. I’d normally be so shy in front of the camera and hate every picture that was taken, but this time I was actually feeling my look. My relationship with myself became less about the number on the scale and more about how I was actually feeling.

Being totally OK with my weight and body was sort of groundbreaking for me. I learned that my body and determination were a lot stronger than I originally thought. Wanting to look more fit was one thing, but actually feeling stronger was another.

Overall, continuing with my fitness journey has totally helped me push the boundaries of what I thought my body could do.

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I like feeling strong. I actually enjoy going to the gym early and lifting 300 pounds and doing things I never thought I'd be able to do. It's fun to walk into a gym and actually feel welcome. It's fun to know how to use the equipment and not feel intimidated. It's fun to look in the mirror with actual confidence while working out. This project allowed me to finally feel like I'm in control of my body.

If you want to keep up with the rest of my journey, you can follow me on Instagram @SpencerAlthouse.

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