25 Lessons From My 25 Years in The Iron Game

Posted by Jason Ferruggia

The year was 1987. It was a fall day much like any other in Jersey. The Giants were starting their season looking to repeat as Super Bowl champs. The Simpson made their television debut, and Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston ruled the pop charts.

But what’s of particular significance to the readers of this blog is what one skinny-fat white kid with a horrifically bad hairdo and equally bad teeth decided to do around this time a quarter century ago.

After returning home from watching Dirty Dancing on the big screen with his babysitter he noticed something disturbing in the mirror.

His Don Mattingly t-shirt was stained up from the two packs of Raisinets and large bucket of popcorn he’d just stuffed down his pie hole. So he peeled off his shirt and revealed a physique so hideous he almost puked it all back up.

Patrick Swayze he was not. And somebody needed to put this baby in the corner. Or at least somewhere far away from candy.

While gazing into the mirror he realized he had two choices. He could go on hiding behind his baggy t-shirt every summer like he did the previous month at Villanova’s Rollie Massamino Basketball Camp, where he always prayed he’d be picked for the “shirts” team when playing shirts-n-skins.

Or he could spend an hour less per day playing Atari 7800 and get his pencil thin, gelatinous ass into the gym and make a real commitment to getting in shape.

He’d toyed around with training before but never seriously enough to stick with it for more than a month or two. This time had to be different. There was simply no way he could go on weighing under a hundred pounds with eight inch guns and thick coating of pudding from head to toe.

The very next day, inspired by the mental images of Rocky training for Drago, he pulled a workout out of Flex magazine, put Public Enemy’s debut album in his Walkman and entered the gym, a man… or fat little shmuck…on a mission.

In case it’s not obvious by now, that human dough bag was me. And 25 years later I’m still at it with no plans of ever slowing down. Training changed my life in ways I could never begin to count.

Along the way I learned a lot of valuable lessons; many of them the hard way. Here’s a list of 25 of them, one for each of my years in the Iron Game.

1) A True State of Overtraining is Pretty Hard to Reach

If you’re a skinny fat dude who’s new to training and start out doing Vince Taylor’s 1992 Mr. Olympia workout you won’t get anywhere. When you’re starting out at zero as your weekly set total it would be a very bad idea to immediately jump to 80-100. Something like thirty total sets would be better.

In a few weeks you’re sore all the time and making no progress so you’re told that you’re overtraining. Technically you’re probably under recovering but to make it simple we refer to it as overtraining. Cutting your volume will lead to better gains.

I help tons of “hardgainers” get big and strong on low volume programs. It’s the smartest plan for cats like that.

Then eventually, once you get strong and build up some work capacity you can start to increase the volume. But a true state of overtraining is pretty hard to reach and takes a while. You won’t be there in two weeks as a lot of people believe.

The human body is a highly adaptive organism and you’re capable of more than you think. If that wasn’t the case every Olympic athlete would be dead within their first year of training.

2) How You Eat is How You’ll Feel

Jerry Seinfeld does a great bit about our ability to consume junk food with minimal repercussions when we were kids. “I could eat an entire bag of candy, wake up, feel fantastic.” Eventually it catches up to you and when you continually eat like shit you’ll feel like shit. The better you eat the better you’ll feel.

3) To Be Athletic You Have to Run and Jump

Sometimes we like to say that certain bodyweight or kettlbell or strongman exercises are athletic forms of training. And they are, no doubt. But if that’s all you ever do you can’t really say you train like an athlete or are truly athletic. Athletes run and jump… as all humans should forever maintain the ability to do with some level of proficiency. Doing explosive movements keeps you young.

4) Soft Tissue Work is Essential

When I first started training no one used a foam roller (or my personal favorite- the rumble roller), floss bands or a lacrosse ball on a regular basis. As a result, dudes got beat up. You have to spend twenty minutes per day on this stuff.

5) “Strength Stretching” Works Better Than Regular Stretching

I believe it was Pavel who came up with the term, “strength stretching,” and in my experience it provides better, lasting gains in range of motion than other forms of stretching. I’m referring to loaded exercises that take you through a stretch position, such as RDL’s, split squats, skin the cat, Cossack squats, etc.

6) High Rep Olympic Lifting Variations Get You Jacked

They say you can’t do any Olympic lifts for more than 3-5 reps. If you’re learning technique or planning to compete I’d agree. But if you’re just looking to get yoked you can definitely do more reps on high pulls or clean a log for sets of 10-15 like Derek Poundstone does on the regular.  I don’t think he’s too worried about the rules.

7) Minimizing Spinal Compression is a Good Idea

After your first couple of years of training it’s not the best idea to continue squatting and deadlifting heavy weights multiple times per week. Limit it to one day or two at the very most. You’ll thank me in twenty years.

8) George Hackenshmidt’s Strength Methods Still Kicks Ass

The unenlightened like to overcomplicate everything. Back in 1906 Hack knew better than to do so and accordingly followed a simple strength progression that works incredibly well to this day. Pick a weight you can do for five reps. Stick with it until you can do ten then add 5-10 pounds and repeat. If you’ve been training less than two years it’ll be hard to beat this method.

9) Most People Are Too Weak or Fucked up For Chin Ups

In public gyms or parks I rarely ever see anyone doing a chin up with great form. The result of doing lots of shitty chins is shitty shoulders and elbows. As sacrilegious as it is to say, most people would get more out of a pulldown until they’re strong enough to do chins properly, which should be everyone’s goal.

The last thing I would recommend is loaded chins. If you’re a master of the exercise do more volume and find ways to make it harder without strapping on weight (pause, do them on rings, etc.).


10) Variety Keeps You Healthy

If you do the same movements over and over you will undoubtedly get overuse injuries. The most common overuse injury in the world is probably tennis elbow. That comes from doing the same repetitive motion with an object that weighs less than a pound. Imagine how much worse it gets when you do that with several hundred pounds.

11) Too Much Variety Can be Counterproductive

Part of the fun of training is getting good at something. To do that you need to practice. Plan your training so they you get enough practice to improve your skill on certain exercises but not so much that it leads to tendon issues.

12) Farmers Walks Are One of the Best Exercises You Can Do

They strengthen just about every muscle group on your body and beef up the forearms and traps. The one arm version is unmatched when it comes to training the obliques and QL (an often overlooked muscle that can pay huge dividends when developed optimally). A lot of people make the mistake of thinking they have to carry 500 pounds per hand on farmers walks. The truth is you can get great results with more moderate loads.

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13) You Don’t Always Have to Train Speed First

This is one of the widely accepted rules of training that just isn’t true. My buddy, Carolina Panthers strength coach, Joe Kenn, taught me that many years ago, saying he wanted his guys to be explosive in the fourth quarter. It’s actually okay and recommended, from time to time, to train speed later in your workouts. And sometimes it’s safer. Dynamic effort bench with bands, anyone…

Stay tuned for Part II and in the meantime drop a comment below.